After a high-profile police shooting in August 2014, looting and violence plagued the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. Area business owners found themselves the unwitting target of riots, looting and arson. The scenes played out for days across America’s television screens in disheartening displays of fire and destruction.
Yet in at least one case, heavily armed neighbors helping neighbors in Ferguson likely saved both lives and livelihoods.
Enter Doug Merello, living proof that armed citizens can be effective deterrents to violent crime, even in the worst of situations. In this era of 24-hour “if it bleeds, it leads” newscasts, this is not a story you heard much about. But for the 47-year-old gas station owner, armed helpers descending to protect his store made all the difference.
One or two newspapers briefly mentioned the story of four black men defending a white business owner and nearly getting arrested for it. America’s 1st Freedom reached out to Merello and his defenders shortly after the riots ended to get the full story.
For days after the Aug. 9 police shooting, many residents rioted and looted area businesses, protesting their perceived injustice of the shooting. Merello was tipped off to the pending riots by a neighbor and, preparing for the worst, rushed to his store and strapped on a handgun.
While preparing for the worst, he wasn’t prepared for the best. Just as masked and armed protestors converged and began passing out rocks, dozens of Merello’s armed neighbors showed up, taking a stand between the pending rioters and Merello’s Conoco gas station. One woman ran into the crowd yelling that they wouldn’t be taking the gas station that night. The protesters backed down.
“If I was sitting at home, not in a million years would I have thought about going to protect a gas station,” Merello said in an exclusive 1st Freedom interview. “It was a nice feeling. There’s no way we would have made it through without them. We would be gone.”
In fact, Merello’s reaction was one of shock and disbelief that his neighbors would be so inclined to help save him and his business.
“You almost cry,” he said. “You’re sitting there thinking, ‘Gosh, these are people sitting at home, and then risk their lives to save a gas station.’ If I were in that situation, as much as I hate to say it, I wouldn’t even think to do that. Maybe now I would, having been the recipient of such strong behavior.”
Dispersal of the protesting crowd wasn’t the end of tensions that night for Merello and his protectors. Local police, including a helicopter spotlighting the scene, showed up and confronted the armed guardians, assuming they were protestors. Merello scrambled to explain they were there to help him, not do harm.If a segment of the population doesn’t have trust in the police, its members have a tendency not to call the police when there’s a problem.
In a city plagued by weeks of civil unrest, Merello said he sees both sides of the issue. Many black people feel targeted, he said. But when police are called to help, they don’t usually get a lot of cooperation. If a segment of the population doesn’t have trust in the police, its members have a tendency not to call the police when there’s a problem.
In fact, violence in the area is so common that Merello said most of his neighbors have had two or three friends murdered.
“I can’t imagine being 22 years old and having three of my friends be murdered,” said Merello. “I think people are tired of the violence. I don’t think it’s the police’s fault, personally. But I think without having that relationship between the police and the community, the problem’s never going to go away.”
Merello does trust the police. But when his employees catch someone stealing, they don’t usually call the police unless someone turns violent. Merello has his own store policy on such confrontations.
“Don’t back down, and don’t escalate,” Merello said, his tone belying the kind of nonchalance that only comes from facing those situations often enough to remain cool under pressure. “I tell them to leave the store, have a nice life, don’t come back.”
That same nonchalance is undergirded by some serious firepower: Guns are kept on the premises, and customers know it. And even the customers who turn violent leave once police are called.
In November, as the city sat on edge waiting for a grand jury to hear evidence and decide whether or not to indict the officer in the shooting, it became apparent that Ferguson’s powder keg had more than one fuse attached. Merello said waiting was the worst part. For two weeks, shop schedules revolved around the riot contingency plans and anticipated all-nighters.
Finally on Nov. 24, a county officer came in to buy a Coke and passed on the ominous warning: “Tonight around 7 or 8 o’clock.” Aside from that, there was no official warning from either the police or businesses. Police presence was nonexistent until the wee hours, and Merello even said officials privately informed him that the National Guard was ordered to delay deployment during initial rounds of protest.
The same day, authorities announced the officer would not be indicted. While other businesses boarded up and abandoned shop, Merello took up his position at the gas station. “It’s like my wife said,” he explained. “If the customers are going to go that far to help you, the least you can do is stay open.”
As city residents’ anger boiled over, Merello’s armed guardians returned. The serious threat lasted only one night.
By Tuesday, only four neighbors stood guard at the gas station—the same four who were approached and interviewed by a reporter. The resulting headline: “Black Residents Stand Guard at White-Owned Store.”
But was it even about race?
Derrick “Stretch” Jordan was one of the men carrying an AR-15 in Merello’s defense, both in August and again in November. He agrees that race didn’t play a part in defending the store, and it shouldn’t have been reported that way.
“That’s how the reporter put it, but me personally, it doesn’t matter,” Jordan told 1st Freedom. “They could’ve just left it like, ‘Guys Protecting Neighborhood Gas Station.’ Ain’t nobody racial.”
Of course, no matter how many voices agree with him, the ones who make the most noise are the ones who adorn the nightly news.“Some people do business with businesses. Some people do business with people. My customers do business with me. I think that’s the difference. They bond with me.”
Why was Merello the beneficiary of such bravery, when many other businesses were looted, trashed or burned?
“It’s a very simple answer,” Merello replies. “Some people do business with businesses. Some people do business with people. My customers do business with me. I think that’s the difference. They bond with me.”
Merello’s protectors agree with that assessment. His investment in the community is what drew them to him—and what keeps them coming back.
“I don’t have anything bad I could say about [Doug],” Jordan said. “He’s always been good to me, he’s a good guy. Any time I have problems, if I needed something, I’d go to Doug, and Doug would give it to me—him and his wife. Anything goes down, I’ll be one of the guys that’ll go up and protect him.
“I’ve never been to the military. But when it comes to Doug, I feel like I’m in the military, because I’d put my life on the line for him.”
Incidentally, when the National Guard did show up, they also mistook the protectors for protesters, pointing their weapons and ordering the crowd to stand down. Media reports indicated they even handcuffed one of the men, but Merello shrugged that incident off as just a mouthy beggar who’d had too much to drink. After a brief but intense encounter, the National Guard’s reaction matched that of city police—laughing and joking after the confrontation, recognizing the armed civilians actually relieved them of the need to guard the store so they could help elsewhere.
Merello doesn’t think so. As he explained, it transcends race. People were simply looking out for their place of business—and its owner. And while many shared strong opinions about the shooting and even empathized with the rioters, they didn’t believe in rioting.
Reports indicate other defenders weren’t so lucky. Members of an organization known as Oath Keepers, whose ranks include current or former law enforcement and military, took up arms and stationed themselves atop area businesses downtown to guard against looting and burning. In an action some of the members deemed “harassing,” many were threatened with arrest by police, who claimed they were practicing security without a license.
Many businesses in the area saw some damage from rioters. Nearby auto repair, dollar stores and convenience shops were targeted by smash-and-grab theft, vandalism and arson. Merello noted that some of the area looters even attempted to escape police detection by hiding among the people guarding his store, until the armed guardians quickly identified the perpetrators to police.
Ironically, earlier in the year Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed legislation that, among other things, enforced state pre-emption, overturning open carry bans in St. Louis, Manchester and other area municipalities. Anti-gun advocates insisted the law created “a culture of fear and intimidation,” while others argued it was turning Missouri into the “Wild West.”
Nevertheless, the veto was overridden by a large majority of legislators, and state pre-emption became law. A mere two months later, the nra-sponsored law was instrumental in protecting the rights of Merello and those who rallied around him, whose only culture of “fear and intimidation” was toward those with destructive intent.
For those who stepped up, not only was the story not about race, but it also wasn’t about politics. It was simply about being a good neighbor.
“It’s not about trying to harm somebody,” Jordan concluded. “Sometimes I forget I own a gun. Truthfully, this is only about the second time I’ve brought it out. I was just out to protect and serve.”
When chaos erupts—whether on your streets or someone else’s—you may feel powerless to help, wondering what just a few people can do against a mob. For some men and women in a town torn apart by violence, the solution was simply to take up arms to protect one of their own.
In fact, sometimes, all you can do is protect your own by being prepared to stand your ground and set the example by recruiting others into the same mindset. Sometimes bearing arms is the most neighborly thing anyone can do—along with supporting causes that lay the legal groundwork to protect your right to do so.
And sometimes, making sure the stories of armed citizens protecting themselves and others are told accurately can inspire the next round of quiet heroism.