ST. LOUIS (AP) — Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens assured black faith leaders Monday in St. Louis that the rights of peaceful protesters will be protected if unrest occurs after a judge rules in a former police officer's murder trial.
But after the meeting at Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church, the Republican governor stressed that any protest veering into violence will not be tolerated.
"Everyone has the constitutional right to peacefully protest and we will protect those rights," Greitens said after talking privately with several dozen members of the clergy and other religious leaders. But he warned that "flipping cars and burning homes is not the way to have a conversation."
Former St. Louis officer Jason Stockley's trial ended last month, but Judge Timothy Wilson has yet to rule. The shooting death of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black, by Stockley, who is white, reignited racial tensions in a region still healing from the 2014 fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Activists have threatened civil disobedience that could include shutting down highways, airports or businesses if Stockley is acquitted in Smith's 2011 death. Barricades have been placed around two courthouses in downtown St. Louis and the police station.
"For anyone who would come here and try and use a tragedy and the pain of this community for violence and destruction, they should know this: Not on our watch," Greitens said. "Not on our watch."
Greitens said he has met with St. Louis police leaders, state law enforcement officials and others preparing for possible unrest, but he declined to share details about any plans. He has not ruled out using the National Guard.
At least one of the pastors who met with Greitens warned against the sort of military-style response that drew criticism in the early days of the protests that followed the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting of Brown, who was black and unarmed.
"If a militarized police presence shows up, that will incite a certain response," said Linden Bowie, president of the Missionary Baptist State Convention.
He said faith leaders are opposed to violence, but have no direct control over demonstrators.
More protests came after a St. Louis County grand jury in November 2014 declined to indict Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson officer who shot Brown. Wilson later resigned.
The handling of the protests in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, drew criticism not just for the militarized response that many thought fanned the anger of demonstrators. Some felt then-Gov. Jay Nixon should have been more aggressive in bringing in the National Guard to stop looting and violence. During the gubernatorial campaign last fall, Greitens was highly critical of Nixon's response in Ferguson.
The encounter that led to Smith being fatally shot began when Stockley and his partner tried to corner Smith in a fast-food restaurant parking lot after seeing what appeared to be a drug deal. Stockley testified that he saw what he believed was a gun, and his partner yelled "gun!" as Smith backed into the police SUV twice to get away.
Dashboard camera video during the chase captured Stockley, saying, "Going to kill this (expletive deleted), don't you know it." Defense attorney Neil Bruntrager said it was a heat-of-the-moment comment that came after Smith nearly ran over the officers.
Prosecutors alleged that Stockley planted a gun in Smith's car after shooting him. They said the gun had Stockley's DNA on it, but not Smith's.
Stockley, 36, who left the police force in 2013 and moved to Houston, denied that he planted the gun. He testified that he felt he was in imminent danger when he opened fire.
Greitens said the judge's ruling "has the potential to hurt many people."
"We have to listen to those who are angry, help those who are hurting, and comfort those who are upset," the governor said.