Saying that their priorities are to protect protesters’ constitutional rights and to keep people and property safe, St. Louis officials issued both a warning and a plea Friday to potential protesters as a grand jury considers whether to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown earlier this year.
Residents of Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting took place, fear a possible repeat of violence that followed the 18-year-old's death on Aug. 9.
“Our goal, our job and our prayer is that at the end of the day everyone goes home safe,” St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay told reporters Friday. “We have no information that would cause us to advise any citizens they should be in fear of their life or property.”
Slay said he expected a grand jury decision would be coming "very shortly," though reports indicate that even if the grand jury reached a decision, an announcement of that decision could take up to 48 hours.
"If protesters are non-violent, police will not be aggressive," said Slay, adding that police will work to keep bystanders, peaceful protesters and themselves safe from any threatening action.
Slay said those engaging in civil disobedience would be given the chance to comply with the law before any. Protesters, he added, may be allowed to occupy public spaces longer than normal.
"Police tactics will not change based on words protesters use, but only based on actions that they undertake," he said.
Slay spoke a day after Brown's father asked the public to remain calm and peaceful even if a grand jury decides it won't bring criminal charges against Officer Wilson.
"No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain," Michael Brown Sr. said Thursday in a public service announcement in which he earlier thanked protesters for speaking out in support of his 18-year-old son. The unarmed black teen’s death at the hands of a white officer triggered weeks of tensions and sometimes-violent protests this summer in the St. Louis suburb.
"I thank for you raising your voice to end racial profiling and police intimidation, but hurting others or destroying property is not the answer," Brown Sr. said. "Continue to lift your voices with us and let’s work together to heal to create lasting change for all people regardless of race."
Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday exhorted police across the U.S. to prepare appropriately for demonstrations and "minimize needless confrontation" with protesters, but he kept from specifically referring to Ferguson.
In other developments, the Jennings School District, which includes the eastern edge of Ferguson, said it will cancel school on Monday and Tuesday in anticipation of a verdict.
The school district was originally scheduled to be on Thanksgiving break from Wednesday to Friday of next week, but canceled classes on Monday and Tuesday as a precaution based on guidance provided to the district superintendent, the district confirmed to Al Jazeera on Friday.
On Thursday riot police arrested at least more two protesters in Ferguson following a second consecutive night of demonstrations. About a dozen protesters had gathered again outside the police station in Ferguson in frigid conditions, sometimes blocking vehicles as they waved placards and chanted "Whose streets? Our streets!" and "Killer cops have got to go!"
Officers with helmets and shields were deployed after a commander told protesters not to block traffic. Brief scuffles broke out and at least one woman and a man were handcuffed and taken away. On Wednesday night police arrested five protesters as tensions continue to simmer ahead of the announcement from the grand jury, which could continue meeting into January. However, a decision on the Brown case is expected by the end of November.
Prosecutors are expected to provide 48 hours’ notice to law enforcement before making a public announcement on the decision, CNN reported Friday. The report also cited sources as saying Wilson was in negotiations with city officials to resign, contingent on the grand jury’s decision, in order "to help ease pressure and protect his fellow officers." The report could not immediately be confirmed.
Michael Brown’s Aug. 9 killing triggered weeks of protests demanding Wilson be indicted. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency and called in 400 National Guard troops to back up police leading up to the announcement. Critics have called that a heavy-handed response, saying the majority of demonstrations have been peaceful.
Activists across the United States also said they would stage their own rallies at federal courthouses nationwide regardless of the grand jury's decision. They said they will call for federal charges to be brought against Wilson if he does not face state charges.
Meanwhile, businesses and schools in Ferguson were also bracing for renewed unrest, especially if the grand jury decides not to bring charges against Wilson.
Signs of preparation could be seen around the St. Louis area as early as last week, with businesses along the Ferguson street that saw the worst of the August unrest keeping boards on their windows. Some shops near the Ferguson Police Department were also beginning to board up their fronts. Area schools have said they will send students home if they hear that the panel’s report is due to come down while classes are being held.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report.