The mayor of Ferguson has told a state legislative committee he tried for hours to get the National Guard to respond when rioting broke out in his town the night a grand jury decision not to indict former officer Darren Wilson was announced.
Mayor James Knowles III told lawmakers he felt helpless and heartbroken that night watching unrest escalating on television and trying to reach someone from the office of Governor Jay Nixon (D) to have the National Guard intervene.
Nixon had declared a state of emergency a week before the grand jury decision was announced, and 700 National Guard troops were in the St. Louis Region that night. Nixon restated Thursday that their mission was not to be on the front line facing those who were looting and burning, but to guard key positions such as the joint command post, while local law enforcement dealt with unrest.
With looting and the setting of fires underway, Knowles said he began around 10 p.m. trying to reach the governor. He said he then called every elected official he had a cell phone number for, including Attorney General Chris Koster (D), Senator Claire McCaskill (D), and State Treasurer Clint Zweifel (D), with the same message.
“We would need help. We obviously see what’s going on, on TV … the officers on the ground were overwhelmed. We needed assistance. My request to all of them was, ‘Can we get through to the governor? Can we get the governor to release the National Guard?'” Knowles told the committee. “My understanding was none of them were able to reach him.”
Knowles said he never learned why the Guard was held back or whose decision it was to hold them back.
Senator Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) chairs that joint committee. He says two key things came out of the hearing.
“One, that there clearly for a period of months had been some plan of what a response would be to civil unrest when, ultimately, the grand jury decision was announced, and then at some point before November 24 there was an abrupt change, particularly in the Ferguson area on what state resources would be available to protect resources and property and life in Ferguson,” Schaefer told reporters after the hearing.
The other thing Schaefer said he was concerned with was what two of the regions firefighters told the committee: that they had to pull back crews when they saw muzzle flashes from guns while fighting a fire. They told the committee that included leaving one burning building when they believed a person was inside.
The firefighters said they had been expecting protection from the Guard.
“We should never, ever, have a circumstance where we are putting firefighters’ lives on the line on top of the risks they’re already taking fighting the fire by not having the appropriate level of protection in an area like this,” said Schaefer.
Schaefer said he next wants the committee to hear from law enforcement, particularly about who made decisions about the placement of the Guard that night.