As Ferguson Burns Over Grand-Jury Decision, Church Cries ‘Peace!’

A wave of anger engulfed Ferguson, Mo., as Church leaders tried to promote peace and seek solutions to underlying issues of justice.

 A car drives by a burning building during a demonstration on Nov. 24 in Ferguson, Mo.
A car drives by a burning building during a demonstration on Nov. 24 in Ferguson, Mo. (photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated on Nov. 26.

FERGUSON, Mo. — Catholic and other church leaders united their voices in a plea for peace as Ferguson became engulfed in riots following a grand jury’s decision not to return any indictment against the white police officer who killed an unarmed black young adult during an attempted arrest in August.

St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch announced at an 8pm press conference on Nov. 24 that the grand jury would not be indicting Officer Darren Wilson for his role in the Aug. 9 shooting that cost 18-year-old Michael Brown his life.

“After their exhaustive review of the evidence … they determined that no probable cause exists to file any charge against Officer Wilson,” McCulloch said.

He said the grand jury — made up of seven men and five women, with nine white members and three black members — had five potential charges given them by prosecutors, ranging from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. The process had been an “exhaustive review” of the evidence, McCullouch said, which included meeting on 25 separate days to examine 70 hours of testimony from 60 witnesses.

Under Missouri law, nine members of the grand jury must vote for an indictment. McCulloch said that the vote count of the grand jury is secret and cannot be known.

McCulloch said that all the evidence and testimony the grand jury had seen would be made public immediately following his announcement.

“It doesn’t lessen this tragedy by the fact that it was a justifiable use of force or self-defense. There’s still a loss of life here,” he said.

The prosecutor said that the community needed to come together and collaborate to solve the underlying issues to prevent more tragedies.

“So many times, as we’ve seen in the past, where the discussion starts and then it fades away, we have the same issues, and we’re back here again. I don’t want to ever have to be back here, so we have to keep that discussion going.”

Federal prosecutors are still looking into whether Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights, but McCulloch said the St. Louis County Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been working together and sharing all evidence.

Riots engulfed Ferguson shortly after McCulloch’s announcement. Despite the pleas of Brown’s parents for protesters and supporters to keep the peace, Monday night was the worst night police had ever seen since protests began over the fatal shooting of Brown and the Ferguson Police Department’s handling of the case.


Archbishop Carlson

Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis appealed to people to “choose peace” during an 8pm prayer service in Ferguson to coincide with the grand-jury announcement, warning against the temptation to think that violence will solve problems.

“I implore each of you: Choose peace! Reject any false and empty hope that violence will solve problems. Violence only creates more violence,” he said in a statement. “Let’s work for a better, stronger, more holy community — one founded upon respect for each other, respect for life and our shared responsibility for the common good.”

Archbishop Carlson said communities, cities, states and the nation will only know peace when it begins in the home.

“If your homes are full of forgiveness, they will be temples of peace,” he said.

He also asked youth to “sow seeds of reconciliation, dignity, honor and respect,” instead of “division, resentment and discontent” that lead to hatred and violence. 

“Long-term solutions will ultimately come about when we are quick to apologize for our faults and quick to forgive the faults of others,” he said.

The archbishop cautioned against people letting their thirst for justice become “blinded by the poisonous desire for vengeance” that can infect others and lead to violence.

“With the grand-jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, I know that many feel hurt, betrayed, forgotten and powerless,” he added. “I know anger, disappointment, resentment and fear abound in our community at this moment. But we must accept this decision as the proper functioning of our justice system.”

But throughout the night, many people took to rioting and looting in Ferguson, burning down 25 local businesses — most of them owned by minorities, according to local media. Ten cars were torched at one dealership, and gunshots interfered with fire departments trying to respond to put out the flames.

Jon Belmar, chief of the St. Louis County Police, told reporters at a 1:30am press conference that he would have needed “10,000 policemen in here” to stop those protesters who “really are intent on destroying a community.”

No loss of life was reported that night in connectkion with the riots. School districts, however, canceled classes Tuesday out of concern for the violence.


Questions Raised

Father Art Cavitt, a black Catholic priest who runs the archdiocese’s St. Charles Lwanga Center, said many people are feeling failed by the justice system.

“Many people are feeling betrayed, left out, and that there are no consequences for the young man’s death, and that somebody should be held accountable,” he said.

According to the evidence before the jury, 90 seconds elapsed between Officer Wilson’s first contact with Michael Brown and his fatal shooting of the teenager. Witness accounts varied greatly, but the narrative apparently accepted by the grand jury was that the altercation began when Wilson blocked the road with his police SUV in an effort to stop Brown and arrest him as a suspect in the robbery of cheap cigars from a local store. Brown pushed Wilson back into the SUV and began striking him. Wilson drew his gun and threatened to shoot Brown if he didn’t stop, whereupon a struggle ensued for Wilson’s gun. The officer fired two shots in his cruiser, and Brown then fled. At that point, Wilson got out of his car and began to chase Brown on foot. Ordered by Wilson to stop, Brown turned around — and according to Wilson and some witnesses’ testimony — charged at the officer who then fired the barrage of shots that killed the young man.

Wilson testified that he was in fear for his life and felt threatened in the neighborhood, which he said had a history of violence and didn’t like the police. When asked by the grand jury why he did not use a taser, Wilson said he chose not to carry one in the line of duty.

"We only have a select amount. Usually there is one available, but I usually elect not to carry one. It is not the most comfortable thing,” he said.”They are very large. I don't have a lot of room in the front for it to be positioned.”

Father Cavitt said there are questions that have to be answered about how to deal with the mistrust of individuals against institutions, protecting the right of people to peaceful protest, but also about how modern policing is done.

“If somebody is a suspect, that goes very quickly in the blinking of an eye to being a threat to life from somebody’s posture, movement or stance,” he said. “That’s a policing issue, but what do we do about that in terms of policy?”


Picking Up the Pieces

For Father Robert “Rosy” Rosebrough, pastor of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish, which serves the Ferguson community, hearing about the devastation was heartbreaking. Members of his parish spent part of the morning picking up the pieces of last night’s anger, which he said has probably put 500 people out of work.

“It was disheartening to see the shops, the people whose lives have been shattered,” he said.

Father Rosebrough said some people are discouraged, thinking that “it doesn’t do any good” and “nobody cares” about their community’s issues. But he said the Mass readings for Tuesday had a special message, where Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world,” and the day’s saint, Catherine of Alexandria, was a martyr because she did not stop proclaiming Jesus Christ.

The pastor said he has seen many people of the St. Louis area and also members of the black community step forward to be part of the process in fixing these problems, and people are dialoguing with each other who haven’t done so before.

Many have rallied behind mandating police wear body cameras, which the priest said is “not a panacea,” but in a situation where it is a person’s word against an officer “allows you to tell what went on.”

But conversion of heart is needed, and the priest said people should imagine what their day would be like if the Good Shepherd put them on his shoulders and walked with them.

“Would your life be different that day? Would you listen differently? Would you see people differently? Because the Good Shepherd’s with you? If that’s the case, why can’t we?”

The Ferguson priest said that he has seen many people decide to come into the church since August, seeing the church’s witness through the community’s ordeal.

“Faith speaks,” said Father Rosebrough. “And knowing it is messy, and we don’t have a lot of answers, but prayer is powerful, and people keep giving witness and signs that Christ is alive in our hearts.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.