Michael Brown shooting: Ferguson police 'come under heavy gunfire' as violence flares on streets again

Two shot and 31 arrested as Captain Ronald Johnson blames 'criminals throwing Molotov cocktails' for escalation of civil unrest

David Usborne
Tuesday 19 August 2014 12:22 BST
Officers point their weapons at protesters in Ferguson, Missouri
Officers point their weapons at protesters in Ferguson, Missouri (Reuters)

A night that seemed set at first to be more peaceful than those that had come before it suddenly flared up once again into anger, chaos and confrontation on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, as police fired tear gas and stun grenades into the air sending protesters fleeing for cover and gasping for breath.

Now in its second week, the protests triggered by the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer, Darren Wilson, show no sign of abating even after attempts by officials to use multiple tactics to stop the violence.

While Governor Jay Nixon had ordered in the National Guard on Monday he had also lifted a nighttime curfew in hopes of easing tensions.

Captain Ron Johnson, the State Trooper appointed by Governor Nixon to restore order to the community, spent the first part of the evening walking along the stretch of West Florissant Avenue, the strip that has been the main flashpoint of the nightly eruptions, talking with protesters about his hopes that the worst might be over. “In my gut, in my soul, I feel that tonight is going to be better,” he commented.

By the end of the night Capt Johnson said that two people had been shot, 31 protesters arrested and that police had come under 'heavy gunfire" during the course of the night.

"These criminal acts came from a tiny minority of law-breakers," he said. "It is criminals who throw Molotov cocktails, fire shots and endanger lives. These are not acts of protesters but acts of violence."

"Not a single bullet was fired by officers despite coming under heavy attack. Our officers came under heavy gunfire," he added.

Earlier, the atmosphere was edgy as a line of police officers in gas masks and riot gear had formed a line at one end of the protest area. Soon, a second phalanx of police, now backed up by armoured vehicles topped with machine gun nests had also gathered at the other end of the street. Sound cannons released ear-piercing tones to discourage assembly. Sandwiched in between were hundreds and demonstrators and journalists.

While some degree of calm appeared to be holding at one end with the help of several community organisers and church pastors mixing with the crowds and urging restraint, at the other end, just off the street where the teenager, Michael Brown, was killed last Saturday, a far angrier knot of demonstrators had gathered, taunting police, ripping out a street and ignoring orders to disperse.

With a far smaller group of reporters at the same junction as witnesses, the stand-off abruptly dissolved into fresh chaos. First some of the protesters scattered, as if spooked by something, which later was said to have been gunfire. Moments later, the police began firing tear gas, while protesters began hurling objects back, ranging from water bottles to at least one Molotov cocktail. The gas in the area spread fast, sparing only the few wearing gas masks.

Later a police officer ordered a CNN broadcast crew - and soon all other remaining reporters - to clear what had been a media ‘safe’ area outside the McDonald's. “There has been a gunshot victim, please leave,” one officer shouted. Meanwhile, riot police weaved through the air pointing automatic weapons indiscriminately at protesters and reporters.

Seemingly not involved directly in the street confrontations were the National Guard troops, who held back mostly to protect the police command centre in a nearby shopping centre.

Earlier, President Barack Obama had said during a White House press conference that he had urged Governor Nixon strictly to limit the involvement of the National Guard to avoid further inflaming community resentment.

President Obama, who said he had directed the Attorney General, Eric Holder, to visit Ferguson personally on Wednesday, urged all sides to work for calm. “While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving in to that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos,” he said. “It undermines, rather than advancing, justice.”

The fresh protests followed the release by lawyers for Mr Brown’s family of the preliminary results of a privately conducted autopsy of the victim suggesting he had been shot six times. The trajectory of one bullet, from the top of the head and out one eye, was seen by some to corroborate claims that the young man had been trying to surrender when hit by the fatal shot. A wound to an arm may also fit with his having had his arms raised at the time, though the private pathologists said they could not say for certain. Two more autopsies are pending from St Louis and also federal authorities.

The family meanwhile called for the arrest of the officer responsible for the shooting, who has been identified as 26-year-old Darren Wilson. The same call was echoed by many of those participating in the protests on Monday night.

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