Protests in the St. Louis suburb rocked by racial unrest since a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager to death turned violent Wednesday night, with people lobbing Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with smoke bombs and tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, who has been the public face of the city torn by Saturday’s death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, told reporters earlier in the day that the St. Louis County investigation of the shooting could take weeks to complete. In the meantime, he said, his department welcomes Justice Department training on racial relations in the suburb, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black while all but three of the police force’s 53 officers are white.
“Unfortunately, an undertow (of racial unrest) has bubbled to the surface,” said Jackson. “Race relations is the top priority right now.”
While Jackson said he wanted to mend fences with the community, protesters were on the streets of Ferguson again Wednesday, facing heavily armed police who at times trained weapons on them from an armored truck. Two reporters said they were detained by police while working at a McDonald’s in the area. And the situation became more tense after nightfall, with police ordering people to go home and then using smoke bombs and later tear gas after some people threw molotov cocktails at them.
Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post said they were handcuffed and put into a police van after officers came in to quickly clear the fast-food restaurant where they were doing some work. The Post reported that Lowery said that at one point he was slammed against a soda machine and plastic cuffs were put on his wrists. The reporters were released without any charges.
Martin D. Baron, the Post’s executive editor, issued a statement saying that “there was absolutely no justification for his arrest” and that the organization was appalled by the conduct of the officers involved.
Jackson did not immediately return a cellphone message Wednesday night from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Police have said the shooting happened after an officer encountered 18-year-old Michael Brown and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car. The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times. In their initial news conference about the shooting, police didn’t specify whether Brown was the person who scuffled with the officer in the car and have refused to clarify their account.
Jackson said Wednesday that the officer involved suffered swelling facial injuries.
Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown when the shooting happened, has told a much different story. He has told media outlets that the officer ordered them out of the street, then tried to open his door so close to the men that it “ricocheted” back, apparently upsetting the officer. Johnson says the officer grabbed his friend’s neck, then tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He says Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times. Johnson and another witness both say Brown was on the street with his hands raised when the officer fired at him repeatedly.
Some protesters Wednesday raised their arms above their heads as they faced the police. Others held signs asking for answers about Brown’s death. The most popular chant has been, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
Brown’s body remained on the street for hours — a span Jackson deemed “uncomfortable” but justified, given that “you only get one chance at that crime scene” to process it correctly. Jackson said authorities also were concerned about gunfire they could hear in a nearby building.
In the shooting’s aftermath, the hacking collective Anonymous has taken credit for burrowing into the city website and shutting it down for much of Monday. The group also released what it said were audio excerpts from St. Louis County dispatch on the day Brown was killed. Police declined to comment on the recordings Wednesday.
A 19-year-old man shot by St. Louis County police near Ferguson was in critical condition Wednesday and faced a felony assault charge after police say he pointed a handgun at an officer.
Esrail Eli Britton was charged with second-degree assault and armed criminal action.
County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the shooting appeared justified, though it will be reviewed by police and the county prosecutor. It occurred near where protesters have gathered nightly since the weekend shooting of Brown. The chief couldn’t say whether Britton was among the protesters.