As the time of the grand jury’s announcement approached, an eerie silence came over the crowd gathering near the Ferguson Police Department.
In less than an hour, the quiet would turn to chaos.
First, though, hundreds of protesters huddled in large groups around radios. Some yelled for quiet, straining to hear the voice of prosecutor.
And then came the announcement that police officer Darren Wilson would face no charges.
Slowly, word rippled out through the crowd. The noise grew, screams from the crowd.
Many were angered. Many more were silent.
But soon the scene fell apart.
Law enforcement officials in riot gear spilled from the nearby fire station, standing guard in the parking lot.
County police used a bullhorn to tell crowds to disperse about 15 minutes after the announcement, saying it had become an unlawful assembly. Smoke and tear gas were deployed in an attempt to disperse the crowds.
Protesters hugged a barricade and taunted police, sometimes with expletives. Some chanted “murderer.” Gunshots were heard down the street, and somebody threw a water bottle that bounced off a police shield.
Police told protesters over a loudspeaker, “Stop throwing rocks at police or you will be subject to arrest.”
At one point police rushed into the crowd to arrest someone. A cardboard sign flew from the crowd toward the police. A line of about 50 police in riot gear moved behind cruisers in the department’s parking lot to take cover.
Soon police cars were kicked, the windows shattered, and at least one building was reported on fire.
Protesters also shut down a freeway for a time.
Some in the crowd reportedly tried to stop others from taking part in vandalism and other violent reactions.
Protests had been planned in dozens of cities, including New York and San Francisco. In Seattle, dozens of people blocked traffic at an intersection near Westlake Park in downtown, TV news reports showed. Some laid down in the road. One protest sign read, “Black Lives Matter.”
But Kansas City Police Chief Daryl Forté tweeted before 10 p.m. that there were no violent protests in the city:
“Eight peaceful demonstrators have assembled. No issues whatsoever. Thank you KC!”
Forte said officers have been positioned around the city and were monitoring the situation.
In Ferguson, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called for a peaceful response after the announcement. Nixon said it is his “continued hope and expectation” that peace will prevail and that “the world is watching.”
In a press conference earlier, he said that National Guard troops would be used to protect public buildings and utilities. Joined by other state and St. Louis-area public officials, the governor said a plan pieced together in anticipation of the grand jury decision aimed to protect both protesters’ free-speech rights and public safety.
Dan Isom, a former St. Louis police chief and the current head of the state Department of Public Safety, said that local law enforcement and the Missouri Highway Patrol planned and trained for any response to the grand jury decision for two months.
“I have great confidence,” he said, “in the design of this plan.”
Activists had been planning to protest even before the nighttime announcement.
The racially charged case in Ferguson has inflamed tensions and re-ignited debates over police-community relations even in cities hundreds of miles from the predominantly black St. Louis suburb. For many staging protests Monday, the shooting was personal, calling to mind other galvanizing encounters with local law enforcement.
The night started quietly.
It was difficult to find a Ferguson business open at 6 p.m. within a mile of the police station, with the exception of the public library, where employees carried out their typical jobs and tried to figure out where they’d watch the announcement. Windows had long been boarded up. Foot traffic, at least through the neighborhoods, was almost non-existent.
“It looked like something you see in Beirut or Iran, some war-torn country,” said Bernarda Phillips of her drive to the police department. “It didn’t feel like the United States of America.”
After the announcement, the mother of shooting victim Michael Brown tried to address the crowd but was unable to.
Brown’s family released a statement saying they were “profoundly disappointed” in the decision but asked that the public “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”
Instead, the crowd ignited.
Many protesters stood in the middle of the street, and all traffic was blocked. Some people wore masks.
“Whose streets? Our streets!” some chanted. “We’ve got to fight back!”
Protesters were listening to the prosecutor’s statement on radios throughout the crowd. While the prosecutor was speaking, Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and stepfather, Louis Head, stepped onto a platform where protest leaders were standing.
McSpadden yelled frustrated responses to what the prosecutor was saying.
“Defend himself from what!” she yelled, when the prosecutor spoke of Wilson defending himself. She added that this was a joke.
“They’re wrong,” she yelled, pointing toward the police officers standing outside of the station.
“They still don’t care,” she said. McSpadden then sank her head into her husband’s chest and wept vigorously.
Not many seemed surprised by the announcement.
“This was never our community in the first place,” said Ericka Janine Brefford. “We have been tolerated as black people in this community. This is not our home.”
Said Phillips, “There’s going to be some fallout in this city tonight.”