The trouble with the timing of Ferguson decision

A protestor is silhouetted against a fire in Ferguson, Missouri. Image copyright Getty Images

The announcement that a St Louis County grand jury would not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown came a little after 20:00 local time, under the cover of darkness.

What followed next was something protestors and law enforcement officials had assured the public they were dedicated to avoiding. Riot-gear-clad police officers and armoured vehicles cleared the streets with tear gas and smoke canisters, as looters smashed store windows and cars burned - a night of chaos and violence.

The outcome was tragic - but did the timing of the announcement contribute to the conflagration? The grand jury reportedly had reached their decision by early afternoon.

No official explanation has been given - Governor Jay Nixon threw up his hands when asked in a press conference, as if to say it was out of his control. One official in St Louis mentioned to reporters that rush hour played a part in the delay, the implication being that it would give people time to get home safely from work or school.

But on the streets of Ferguson, some residents were concerned that the verdict was coming after nightfall - they would have preferred a morning announcement.

According to the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, when the announcement was made wouldn't make a difference.

"Protesters were going to protest, day or night," he tweeted.

As dawn broke on a shattered town the morning after, many didn't see it that way.

Activist Al Sharpton called the timing of the decision irresponsible and "unnecessarily provocative".

Legal analyst Jeffery Toobin said it was "foolish and dangerous".

"Here's the thing about that time of night: it's dark," he writes for CNN.com. "Anyone - anyone! - should have known that the decision in the Brown case would have been controversial. A decision not to indict, which was always possible, even likely, would have been sure to attract protests, even violence. Crowd control is always more difficult in the dark."

The decision on when to reveal the non-indictment was "inscrutable" and only likely to increase the possibility of violence, says New Yorker's Jelani Cobb.

But, he adds, that it was all part of a larger lack of preparation on the part of law enforcement.

"Despite the sizable police presence, few officers were positioned on the stretch of W Florissant Road where Brown was killed," he writes. "The result was that damage to the area around the police station was sporadic and short-lived, but Brown's neighbourhood burned. This was either bad strategy or further confirmation of the unimportance of that community in the eyes of Ferguson's authorities."

St Louis-based freelancer Sarah Kendzior agrees.

"Everything about the announcement - the timing, the condescending tone, the weeks of militarised vehicles patrolling the roads - seemed designed to inflame and incite the region," she writes for Politico Magazine. "And it did."

On MSNBC's Morning Joe show, host Joe Scarborough said it was "mind-boggling" that authorities continued to mishandle public relations in the case.

A daylight announcement would have encouraged peaceful protests, he said.

Image copyright Drusilla Moorhouse

"You would have been doing the police officers a favour, and you would have been doing the black-owned small businesses that were torched last night a favour, you would be doing the family a favour," he continued.

Fellow panellist Eugene Robinson added that the outcome was totally foreseeable based on how the announcement was made.

"I hate conspiracy theories," he said, "but if you knew you were going to announce that there was no indictment and you wanted to shift attention to the reaction away from the decision itself, well I guess this would be a way to do it - an awful way to do it."

And there certainly was no shortage of theories, expressed on Twitter, as the violence in Ferguson spread - whether it was craven officials instigating a fight or police authorities seeking a boost in overtime pay.

Image copyright Joseph Goodman

Hot Air's Noah Rothman counters that all the wild speculation and criticisms of the district attorney's presentation are just further examples of liberals looking to blame the unrest on anyone other than the unruly participants.

"Point A to Point B, all due to the fact that the prosecutor spent nearly an hour laying out the facts of a criminal case and delayed that announcement long enough to allow those in Ferguson and around the country time to bunker down before the inevitable violence erupted," he writes. "What a scoundrel."

Prior to the Ferguson revelation, there was speculation on whether the fallout from a non-indictment would equal the violent riots that erupted in Los Angeles 22 years ago after the acquittal of the white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King.

"The memory of that incident also hangs like a shroud over Ferguson, Missouri," writes the Grio's Javier E David.

That announcement came in mid-afternoon, and some of the most violent attacks occurred in broad daylight.