JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As protests mounted following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, so too did the public frustration directed at Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon — seemingly, no matter what action he took.
Public records obtained by The Associated Press show that Nixon received thousands of phone calls and hundreds of emails, letters and faxes from people throughout Missouri and the world in the weeks after the Aug. 9 shooting. Most of the correspondence was critical of the governor — first for not intervening quickly enough as armored police fired tear gas on protesters, then later for appearing to call for the prosecution of the white officer who shot the black 18-year-old while the investigation is ongoing.
The documents display a diversity of public outrage. Some people blamed Nixon for a heavy-handed police response to protesters. Others chided him for not publicly doing enough to support police. Some comments were crude and profane. Others offered advice on how to restore peace in the streets from people emphasizing their expertise.
Nixon said he read none of it — though his staff did — because he was so focused on getting the difficult situation under control.
“There aren’t a lot of ways to deal with shootings of this nature, conduct of this nature, that don’t touch a lot of very emotional, value-laden positions that Missourians hold,” Nixon told the AP.
From a public perception standpoint, “it’s kind of a no-win situation” for Nixon, said Eric Morris, an assistant communications professor at Missouri State University.
“There were substantial numbers of people with strong feelings on both sides of it, which means there’s literally no action you can take in the middle that’s not going to get you probably criticized,” Morris said.
The night after Brown’s death, peaceful protests turned violent as crowds looted stores and clashed with police. Those protests continued for days. Copies of Nixon’s daily schedule previously provided to the AP show that at first, he split his attention between dealing with the unrest in Ferguson and performing routine duties such as public appearances at schools and the State Fair.
“Your leadership is needed in St. Louis in light of the Michael Brown shooting. People are angry and hurt. Please consider a visit soon,” Elizabeth Macheca, of the St. Louis suburb of Brentwood, pleaded in an Aug. 12 message to the governor.
Nixon visited the area that night, participating in a community forum at a church.
But he continued to get messages urging him to intervene to restore peace. One woman, who said her adult daughter was at a friend’s nearby apartment when Brown was shot, wrote that she held Nixon “personally responsible for the chaos that has occurred.”
“Governor, your state looks like a war zone. Think you should be present in Ferguson to help diffuse the situation,” Kathy Grab, of Philadelphia, wrote as police confronted protesters the night of Aug. 13.
Nixon traveled to Ferguson the next day and put the Highway Patrol in charge of security instead of the local police. He got a few compliments — “Bravo … This is the most common sense decision that has been made,” wrote Laura Seithel, of the St. Louis suburb of Ballwin.
As the clashes continued, Nixon declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew, lifted it and called in the National Guard to help protect the police command center. On the evening of Aug. 19, Nixon released a videotaped statement vowing “to protect the people of Ferguson” and stating: “A vigorous prosecution must now be pursued.”
The public reaction received by Nixon’s office was overwhelmingly negative. The call for “vigorous prosecution” is “an outrageous rush to judgment” against Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, wrote George Little, of the St. Louis suburb of St. Peters.
Law enforcement officers and their families took particular offense to Nixon’s comments — “They were rude, biased and unwise,” wrote Fresno County, California, Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Curtice.
Nixon’s office issued a clarification that his words weren’t intended to prejudge the officer but to refer to the full duties of the prosecutor.
Yet Nixon was questioned about the statement last week by a student at a Boonville High School assembly.
“What I was trying to say, whether the words were aptly chosen or not, was that let’s get this process moving,” Nixon responded.
Morris said the governor’s “vigorous prosecution” comments were indicative of the challenge he faced trying to communicate with members of the public who have polar-opposite perceptions of police as worthy of distrust or respect.
“I don’t see how you’re going to get those two sides to come to much agreement about what the situation in Ferguson is, or what it represents,” he said.