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Ferguson businesses brace for more protests ahead of grand jury verdict

Shop owners prepared for looting, more lost business if another round of demonstrations ensues

FERGUSON, Missouri — Protest organizers in Ferguson have said repeatedly that demonstrations over the past three months have been 99 percent peaceful. There’s truth to the statement — a few troublemakers among thousands, a few ugly nights among the more than a hundred that have passed since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on Aug. 9.

Even so, the protests at times have shown a harder edge. The burned shell of a convenience store, destroyed in the first night of looting, became both a gathering place for protesters and a symbol for their movement. Windows at many businesses were broken, and their spray-painted plywood replacements were among the indelible images broadcast around the globe.

With the investigation into Brown’s death dragging on, tensions have waxed and waned week to week. But as the grand jury decide whether to charge Wilson wraps up its deliberations — an announcement is expected at any time — anxiety is once again palpable.

All along, protesters have hinted, suggested and occasionally threatened that if Wilson is not indicted, things could turn ugly. Most legal experts believe that the chances of an indictment are remote, setting the stage for what could be the largest demonstrations yet.

On Monday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. In his statement announcing the move, Nixon said one reason for his decision was that “businesses must be protected from violence and damage.” Local police officials have indicated that they will do more to protect businesses than they did in August, when many owners said they felt let down by authorities.

To help small businesses recover from lost revenue and looting, state officials announced a public-private partnership to provide $1 million in interest-free loans. So far, more than $200,000 has been distributed. Still, many business owners are leery.

Click here for Al Jazeera’s extensive Ferguson coverage.

Mike Wood, a manager at Zisser Tire and Auto on West Florissant Street, said his company hasn’t done anything special to prepare for further protests. The shop’s windows were smashed in August and are still boarded up. Despite the best efforts of customers who attempted to protect the store, much of its inventory was taken.

“We’re just going about our daily business as normal,” he said. “We’re hanging out waiting to see what happens the second round. Business naturally goes down when you’re not open and when they close the streets down and you can’t come in to work.”

Prime Time Barber and Beauty avoided looting in August, when barbers armed with baseball bats defended the store from potential vandals. But on Tuesday afternoon, the windows were boarded up. A sign in front read “Open” in big letters, with “Our prayers are with the Michael Brown family” underneath.

“The insurance company made us board it up,” explained barber Thomas Bradley. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t cover it.”

Several young men sat around the shop discussing the case. The consensus was that Wilson should be charged but that it wasn’t likely. “Why would they be preparing for a catastrophe,” one customer said, “unless they knew what was going to happen?”

At a cellphone store across the street, one window was boarded up, a remnant of the previous vandalism, while the other was intact. Kevin Pak said that when the security system went off in August, the police didn’t show up. The store suffered $15,000 in damage. “They didn’t do anything last time,” he said.

He hoped that this time would be different. The store has changed its procedures, locking up more of its merchandise at night, and he said it’s encouraging that the National Guard has already been called in.

“We’re just doing business as usual,” Pak said. “I’ve been hearing that the grand jury decision was coming for a long time. I heard that in September and in October. I’m not going to worry about it until it happens.”

Looting hasn’t been the only way that the protests have affected businesses. Protest leaders have announced a boycott effort called No Justice, No Profit, set to target area retailers during the post-Thanksgiving shopping weekend. “We are asking you to withdraw your participation the entire weekend,” organizer Dacia Polk said at a news conference announcing the plan. “There will not be business as usual in America while our people are being killed.”

Concerns reach from Ferguson to the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis, where VonDerrit Myers was killed by an off-duty officer Oct. 8, to Clayton, the county seat, where the grand jury has been meeting, and beyond. One protest group released a map of targets, which includes points all over the region, including the headquarters of Anheuser-Busch, Monsanto and Emerson Electric, a company that has been operating in Ferguson for more than 70 years. The maps cites the high salary of Emerson’s CEO as their motivation to protest at the building.

Pace Properties, which manages a strip mall not far from the Clayton courthouse, recently sent a letter to its tenants warning of possible protests and “asking every store manager to give some serious thought to what your response would be in the event of demonstrations or civil unrest.”

MoKaBe’s, a St. Louis coffee shop known for social activism, responded in a different way.

The shop is not far from the site of the Myers shooting. Last week MoKaBe’s wrote on its Facebook page that the shop would serve “as a ‘safe space’ for activists and protestors as soon as the grand jury announcement is made. “Our doors will be open 24 hours for folks to warm up, rest, grab a drink or snack, charge phones, use restrooms, etc.”

That was met with a backlash from supporters of the police and people who are fed up with the protests. On the St. Louis CopTalk message board, a commenter labeled MoKaBe’s a “business that supports cop killers.”

The shop’s owners declined to comment for this story, but employees have responded in their own way. White baristas there wear black T-shirts that read “race traitor,” and on Facebook the business posted a thank-you message to a man from Canada who, “among calls from racist trolls, called to congratulate us for our principled stand against police brutality. Made our night.”

At lunchtime on Tuesday, Ferguson Burger Bar and More was full of customers waiting on their orders. Ferguson residents Charles and Kizzie Davis bought the restaurant the day before Brown was killed. Unlike many of its neighbors, the burger bar came through the protests unscathed even though the couple did nothing extra to protect it. As one of the few businesses that stayed open throughout the protests, the restaurant became a gathering place for media, protesters and residents, and it received quite a bit of news coverage. Charles Davis describes their luck as a “blessing.”

Kizzie Davis wore a red T-shirt that read “Black lives matter.” (One business that’s booming in Ferguson has been the production of memorial gear.) She told a couple of customers about a fundraiser the restaurant is organizing. She was planning to distribute 150 holiday care baskets. “We would like to give back to the children in the surrounding areas of Ferguson,” the flier read. “They have been affected by the Mike Brown shooting in more than one way.”

Asked if he worried what might happen after the grand jury decision, Charles Davis shook his head no.

“I wasn’t worried before, so I’m not worried now,” he said. “I’m just going to leave it in God’s hands.”

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