CLAYTON, Missouri —St. Louis looks like a city prepping for a storm. In Ferguson, residents are filling their gas tanks and stockpiling supplies, as strip-mall business owners spray-paint “OPEN” on plywood barricades nailed across storefronts.
Twelve miles south, in the wealthy suburb of Clayton —home to a cluster of investment banks, upscale restaurants, art galleries, and the grand jury hearing for the Michael Brown case — the preparations are a little more sophisticated and a lot more expensive.
The predominantly white residents of Clayton seem convinced that the protesters will take out their anger there, and are hurrying to insulate themselves from the threat with private security firms.
Asymmetric Solutions, a St. Louis-based security and intelligence company that is staffed by U.S. special-operations veterans, has been working with companies around the metropolitan area whose assets are valuable enough to justify the firm’s steep rates. A project manager for the company, who asked not to be named, predicts that outside of Ferguson “most of the difficulty will occur in the Clayton area…the bastions of white wealth and privilege.”
When the grand-jury decision comes down, the firm will deploy its operatives to probable flashpoints. “You’ll never notice any of our people,” he said. “We’re not putting fighters out there—we’re putting thinkers and managers out. Their ability to wage war effectively is simply one more tool in the toolbox.”
Securitas, a security firm that employs 1,600 private guards around St. Louis, says it contracted out the last of its personnel two weeks ago to protect malls, banks, pharmaceutical corporations, power plants, and other large businesses, some of which are based in Clayton. To meet the demand of anticipated violence, Securitas has been making new hires, according to Garrett Cizek, the firm’s local business-development manager.
Other security companies are petitioning local law enforcement to waive the requirement for fingerprinting new guards before they can be licensed, because even that three-day processing period is interfering with their ability to meet the current surge in demand.
Securitas’ menu of services includes interior, exterior, and perimeter patrols, as well as security-trained receptionists and elevator escorts for corporate officers—each offered at two price points: armed and unarmed. But currently, there’s little demand for unarmed. “They all want armed,” Cizek said. “Our business, I hate to say it, lives for this stuff.”
The corporate bulwark extends online; Pinkerton, a subsidiary of Securitas, is monitoring Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat for potentially menacing references to its clients —mostly “large, blue-chip companies,” according to Steve Ringhofer, the director of the firm’s St. Louis office.
Cizek and Ringhofer also indicated that private-security consultants are visiting Clayton’s corporate campuses (they wouldn’t disclose which ones) to help devise alternate routes for commuting employees in case of emergency road closures, and to remove public ashtrays, statuary, and landscape-lighting appliances, which they worry that rioters might use to break into office buildings. Some Clayton buildings were already locked down on Monday, when a crowd of 100 protestors gathered for a demonstration that culminated outside the Buzz Westfall Justice Center.
The private security being rolled out in Clayton and other wealthy St. Louis suburbs is too costly for many of the people and smaller businesses back in Ferguson. And it’s precisely that resource disparity that has fed the popular anger since Michael Brown’s killing.
Napoleon Williams III, an outreach director at the nonprofit Connections to Success, says that many of his colleagues are distressed at how the security obsession has interfered with discussions about deeper systemic issues. “There’s a lot of frustration that that’s the reaction from the white community—the branding of a victim position,” Williams said. “It’s not that African-Americans and people of color are not concerned with violence. It’s just a higher, acute notion of this being an opportunity for change.” In Ferguson, the restoration of normalcy—of the way things were before Michael Brown was killed—is anathema. The system was no more fair or functional then; it just wasn’t receiving any attention. Williams and others don’t want the national scrutiny to blow over too soon.
As the city prepares for things to get worse before they get better, the community’s safe havens have been supporting more than their usual load. Girls Inc., an after-school program that is located three and a half miles from where Michael Brown was killed, plans to harbor as many as 300 additional girls in a gymnasium full of cots. Cheryl Jones, the program’s executive director, says they’re prepared to shelter the girls for as long as one month and will provide trauma counseling for those who need it.
“If girls say, ‘I can’t sleep at night because I’m seeing dead people,’ we need someone who’s qualified to handle that,” Jones said.
In the event of a non-indictment, the Don’t Shoot Coalition plans to launch three concurrent protests—two in Ferguson, and one in the South St. Louis neighborhood of Shaw, where VonDerrit Myers, Jr., 18, was killed last month by an off-duty police officer working for a private security company. At 7 a.m on the first weekday after the decision, their ranks will descend on a fourth theatre of protest: Clayton.
“There’s a real reason why protesters are going to Clayton: to show how the system doesn’t work in Ferguson, but works pretty well in Clayton,” said Arielle Klagsbrun, an organizer. They will attempt to prove that point by leveraging the strength of their numbers against Clayton’s strength, its economy.
Amid calls for the erasure of divisive boundary lines that entangle the city, members of the establishment are hiring moat-diggers at a greater rate than ever before. By transgressing the long-entrenched parochial borderlines, the protest will force a conversation about the disparity between the sides, but also about the ramparts that reinforce them. Having braced for an insurrection, Clayton might be most disarmed by an occupation that remains entirely peaceful.