For a few moments after they heard the Grand Jury’s decision, on the radio of a parked car, the protesters outside Ferguson’s police headquarters observed the silence that Michael Brown’s parents had requested in memory of their son. But the delicate calm could not hold, and soon the streets of this fractured Missouri community descended into chaos, with fires burning out of control, looters running amok and police unable to contain the spreading violence.
Standing among supporters in the crowd on Monday evening, Mr Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, responded to the news that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the fatal shooting of her son by crying out: “Do they know how those bullets hit my son? What they did as they entered his body? They’re wrong,” she said, weeping: “They’re wrong.”
Supporters of Mr Brown’s family repeated appeals for calm yesterday at a press conference, but anger is also growing. Lawyers for the family say the process that led to Darren Wilson not being indicted was unfair and broken. Benjamin Crump said: “We could see what the outcome was going to be, and that is what occurred last night. We condemn the violence and looting that happened. But we also condemn the violent acts that happened on 9 August.”
Despite the Brown family’s consistent appeals for peaceful protest, the grand jury’s decision led to scenes as dramatic as any of those that followed the unarmed teenager’s death.
In the early hours of Tuesday, St Louis County police chief Jon Belmar told reporters that although there had been no deaths reported, he had heard around 150 gunshots during the night – not one of which was fired by police, he said. “I don’t think we were underprepared,” he added. “But I’ll be honest with you: unless we bring 10,000 policemen in here, I don’t think we can prevent folks who really are intent on destroying a community.” Yesterday, a body was found in a parked car near where Mr Brown was shot last August. The man, in 20s, was shot dead and set on fire, broadcaster KTVI-TV reported.
Myron Gillet, 24, said he and others had been demonstrating peacefully until they heard the verdict, “Then people just started going wild. Some guys started kicking a cop car, bricks got thrown into buildings. I don’t know how the fires got started, I was too busy getting tear-gassed.”
As armoured police vehicles moved in, firing tear gas into the crowd, more angry protesters massed at the police line. Some obscured their faces with scarves and masks, others’ features fell as they watched the unfolding spectacle, a far cry from the non-violent civil disobedience that had been promised in the days preceding the verdict. One man repeatedly yelled the now-familiar slogan, “No Justice, No Peace” at officers in riot gear. “You aren’t giving us justice,” he said. “We’re animals – that’s what you think! But we’re Americans, just like you!”
Nearby, two police squad cars had been torched by demonstrators, and they popped and crackled in the dark. They were just the first of multiple fires set across the St Louis suburb in the hours that followed. A Walgreen’s pharmacy was gutted, and then a Little Caesar’s pizza restaurant. Before long, businesses were ablaze the length of West Florissant Avenue, a main road close to where Brown was killed, which became the centre of the protests in August.
As a branch of the car repair chain Auto Zone was engulfed in flames, one man stood in front of it, fist aloft, as others took pictures. Looters picked their targets indiscriminately, streaming into shops including a Walmart supermarket, a mobile phone store and a tax office. At a used-car dealership in neighbouring Dellwood, a row of cars sat smoking as, next-door, a petrol station convenience store turned to embers.
At one point a pair of armoured vehicles, loaded with SWAT personnel in green fatigues, pursued a car on to the forecourt of a smouldering tyre shop. As the driver was arrested at gunpoint, one man picked up loose chunks of Tarmac from the pavement and began to hurl them in the officers’ direction. Another, his face obscured by a bandanna, observed: “This is a war zone now.”
The sound of gunfire peppered the air with alarming frequency. The US Federal Aviation Administration said it had redirected 10 flights to avoid the gunshots being fired into the night sky. Police arrested dozens of suspected looters, as well as at least one person for arson and another for unlawful possession of a firearm. But despite deploying pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets, the authorities were unable to quell the unrest as it broke out in pockets all over the St Louis suburb, accompanied by the ubiquitous cry: “Fuck the police.”
There were clashes, too, in the Shaw neighbourhood of St Louis, where 18-year-old VonDerrit Myers was shot dead by an off-duty police officer last month. Protests were also reported in other cities across the US, including Washington DC and New York, where a demonstration closed Times Square to traffic. In Los Angeles, 200 protesters briefly blocked the 110 freeway.
Some in Ferguson heeded the call for peaceful protest, and a crowd remained outside the police headquarters late into the night, chanting and banging drums. Though they said they were “profoundly disappointed” by the decision not to charge Officer Wilson, Ms McSpadden and Mr Brown’s father, Michael Brown senior, issued a statement responding to the unfolding unrest, insisting, “Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction.”
In a televised address, President Barack Obama urged protesters to refrain from violence in the wake of the verdict. “[Healing] won’t be done by smashing car windows,” he said, “and certainly it won’t be done by hurting anybody.”
On Tuesday morning, Officer Wilson’s lawyers issued a statement saying the 28-year-old and his family were grateful for the support they had received in the three months since the shooting, and adding that they believed the Grand Jury had come to the correct verdict.
Some in St Louis acknowledged, at least, that the decision was not a simple one. Standing back from the crowd early on Monday night, watching as old tensions began to flare once more, 20-year-old Chris Batton said: “They had a hard decision to make”
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