Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered more National Guard troops to Ferguson as chaos erupted after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer for the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
Businesses were looted, police cars burned on the street and a dozen buildings torched. Crowds that had gathered near the Ferguson Police Department scattered as authorities shot canisters of gas. Windows were smashed after prosecutors said last night that they wouldn’t charge Officer Darren Wilson in the August death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
There were 61 arrests as of early this morning on charges including arson, burglary, unlawful assembly and trespassing, according to an e-mail from Brian Schellman, spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department.
Criminals used the cover of organized protests to commit mayhem, and additional resources will be deployed tonight to help maintain the peace, Sam Dotson, the St. Louis city police chief, said today during a televised press conference.
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“Behavior like we saw last night with the criminal activity won’t be tolerated,” Dotson said.
The spasm of fury extended violence that since August has prompted a re-examination of law enforcement’s relationship with minorities across the U.S. The debate stretched from smoke- choked South Florissant Road in Ferguson to the White House, where President Barack Obama pleaded for calm.
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, joined the protesters after the decision was announced, crying as she repeated, “Y’all wrong, y’all wrong!”
By midnight, the St. Louis County Police Department reported “heavy automatic gunfire” in the area and buildings ablaze, including a storage facility, meat market and pizza shop. Rocks, bottles, batteries and a Molotov cocktail were hurled at officers, it said. At the Beauty Town supply store, smoke billowed from broken windows as a fire hissed and boomed.
The protest began spinning out of control about three hours before, after a series of pops scattered protesters and a line of about 50 police in riot gear moved behind cruisers in the department’s parking lot to take cover.
Later, as crowds gathered farther down the street, officers told protesters over a loudspeaker, “Stop throwing rocks at police or you will be subject to arrest.” People ran to escape a cloud of tear gas.
Armored vehicles blocked the road as the crowd surged back, rallying around a marcher waving an American flag. Some protesters showed police hands raised in a mocking posture of surrender, while others showed their middle fingers.
Tear gas and smoke rose in clouds around a “Seasons Greetings” sign hanging over the street.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said at a 1:30 a.m. news conference that most of the torched buildings were complete losses.
Officers seized weapons and were bracing for more violence today with the help of additional National Guard troops that Nixon odered to the city, Belmar said
“I don’t think we were underprepared, but I’ll be honest with you, unless we bring 10,000 policemen in here, I don’t think we could prevent folks that really are intent on just destroying a community,” he said.
Belmar said that officers were pelted with rocks and batteries and that he personally heard at least 150 shots. The onslaught, Belmar said, outpaced the worst August protest.
“We didn’t have anything of this magnitude,” he said. “I didn’t foresee anything like this.”
Obama said the nation must heed the decision of the St. Louis County grand jury and urged protesters to express their anger in non-violent ways and law enforcement officers to exercise care and restraint.
“This is not just an issue for Ferguson,” Obama said at the White House minutes after the grand jury’s decision was announced. “This is an issue for America.”
Elsewhere in the U.S., protests were mainly peaceful. In New York, at least 1,000 people marched north from Union Square, many holding signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Jail Killer Cops.”
“I’m actually too sad to shout along with the other protesters,” said Alexis Perrotta, 40, of Manhattan. “I think that racism is alive and well.”
In Washington, a crowd congregated at the White House.
“Michael Brown, Emmett Till, how many black dudes will you kill?” they chanted, a reference to the 1955 lynching of a 14- year-old in Mississippi.
In Oakland, California, about 500 protesters shut down Interstate 580 West, according to a news release. A police car was sprayed with graffiti and a Chase Bank window broken. One person was arrested for vandalizing the cruiser and “numerous arrests” were made on the freeway, according to the statement.
The grand jury decision that triggered the anger followed weeks of work. St. Louis County Chief Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch said the panel, composed of nine whites and three blacks, began hearing evidence Aug. 20 after days of protests.
McCulloch said members met for 25 days and are the only people who heard every witness and examined every piece of evidence. He said many witness statements were contradicted by physical evidence.
McCulloch said Brown, suspected in shoplifting cigars from a store that was looted yesterday, attacked Wilson while the officer was in his patrol car. Brown’s blood was found inside Wilson’s vehicle and on the gun, which was fired twice in the car, McCulloch said.
“As tragic as this is, it was not a crime,” McCulloch said. “It doesn’t lessen this tragedy that it was a justifiable use of force in self defense.”
The Aug. 9 shooting touched off days of racially charged demonstrations that included looting in the municipality of about 21,000 people, 70 percent of whom are black. As of September, 50 of the city’s 53 police officers were white.
Ferguson police deployed armored vehicles and aimed assault rifles at protesters. Protests and arrests occurred regularly in the ensuing weeks.
Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Brown’s family, said in a Twitter posting that members are “profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions.”
The Reverend Al Sharpton, the civil-rights activist, said last night at a news conference in New York that he would join Brown’s father and mother in St. Louis at 11 a.m. local time today, before returning to New York to lead nationwide demonstrations.
“It’s very suspect to say that if you claim Michael Brown was shoplifting cigarillos, that that qualifies him as a felon,” he said. “You are trying to describe a shoplifter as a fleeing felon?”
Wilson’s lawyers said in a statement published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper that the officer was following his training and the law:
“We recognize that many people will want to second-guess the grand jury’s decision. We would encourage anyone who wants to express an opinion do so in a respectful and peaceful manner.”