The impending civil disturbances appear to be tied to whether or not a grand jury decides to file charges against Darren Wilson, a white police officer who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr. in August. The incident triggered days of protests, the elements of which included instances of rioting, looting and vandalism.
Friday’s report that the state’s militia is preparing for a fresh wave of civil demonstrations prompted some activists to declare that the state is readying a “war” in Ferguson. Short of a statement from the Missouri National Guard or related officials, there’s no way to corroborate King’s report through officials channels — because the militia is legally protected from public oversight.
Most states have crafted an offshoot of the Freedom of Information Act, a federal statute that permits citizens to inspect and copy public records. The notion is that the inspection of public records establishes a level of transparency between government agencies and members of the public, ensuring the public keeps oversight over agencies that use their taxpayer money and holds officials accountable for wrongdoings.
Missouri is one of several states to have modeled an open records law off the Freedom of Information Act. Dubbed the Sunshine Law, Missouri contends that members of the public have a right to inspect documents produced by government offices — including law enforcement agencies — so long as the procurement of such records do not reasonably interfere with ongoing investigations or enforcement proceedings.
The Missouri National Guard, however, is not subject to the Sunshine Law. The agency has a blanket protection from the inspection of public records — and it’s been that way for nearly three decades.
In 1987, former state senator John Scott (D-St. Louis) crafted a bill that exempted the state militia from having to disclose public records pursuant to Sunshine Law requests. The bill received bipartisan support in Missouri’s House and Senate, including from then-senator Jay Nixon, who now serves as Missouri’s governor. Later that year, it was signed into law.
The provision made little waves until 2012 when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that members of the state militia had engaged in looting following a destructive tornado that ripped through the city of Joplin that summer. The newspaper filed a Sunshine Law request seeking records on the National Guard members who were said to have stolen items from the homes of tornado victims. Their request was denied.
“To be honest about it, I’d have a hard time supporting any government entity paid for by tax dollars being exempted from the open-meetings law,” Scott said. “I think everybody should be governed by it.”
Nixon, who has been making law-enforcement decisions as far as the situation in Ferguson goes, refused to take a position on the guard’s exemption in 2012. Two years later, he’s still not talking.
TheBlot Magazine e-mailed the Missouri National Guard inquiring about King’s report. The agency did not return our request for comment by press time.
UPDATE, Oct. 7: After our article was published, Reuters reported that Missouri agencies were readying a plan for civil demonstrations following an unfavorable grand jury verdict. Though Reuters did not specifically mention the Missouri National Guard, the information in their report corroborated much of what King said on Twitter one day prior.