Images of armored trucks shooting tear gas and flash grenades at protesters were again broadcast to the world today, drawing a new round of rebuke over police tactics in Ferguson, Missouri.
Police, after saying yesterday they wouldn’t use such force, opted to do so after protesters defied a midnight curfew imposed by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. Responding to reports of a shooting, dozens of police in armored trucks advanced on a crowd of demonstrators.
“You are violating the state curfew,” a police officer told protesters over a loudspeaker just before 1 a.m. “You must disperse immediately. Failure to comply may result in arrest or other actions.”
Minutes later, tear gas canisters flew through the sky toward the crowd of about 200. The show of force by police against demonstrators was a marked departure from the previous night, when officers watched from afar as people looted several stores.
It underscored the tense relations between law enforcement and the mostly black population of Ferguson, where protests and unrest have drawn international attention since Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, unarmed black man, was shot to death by police on Aug. 9.
Politicians from across the political spectrum -- from Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to President Barack Obama -- have criticized police for using armored trucks and tear gas to respond to the protests.
“When I was watching the film footage coming out of Ferguson, it looked like it was in Baghdad or some other war-torn zone,” U.S. Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, said today on NBC’s “Meet The Press” program.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who was asked by Nixon to oversee the police response, said the use of tear gas and trucks was appropriate because there were several armed people at a local restaurant, and one person had been shot.
“We’ll have officers patrolling the area to ensure that our citizens are safe and our businesses remain healthy,” Johnson told reporters just before 3 a.m. today. Johnson said seven people were arrested for refusing to disperse. A shooting victim was transported to the hospital in critical condition, he said.
Nixon, a 58-year-old Democrat, imposed the limits yesterday while declaring a state of emergency. His actions came after sporadic looting on Aug. 15.
St. Louis County prosecutors must accelerate their investigations into Brown’s death, Nixon said today.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch is “an experienced prosecutor and this is his opportunity to step up,” Nixon said today on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The county’s top executive said Aug. 15 that McCulloch should be removed from the investigation because of his personal history and criticism of Nixon for appointing Johnson. McCulloch was 12 when his police-officer father was killed by a black man.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has instructed Justice Department officials to arrange for an additional autopsy of Brown by a federal medical examiner, according to an e-mailed statement today from Brian Fallon, a department spokesman.
Yesterday, Nixon’s curfew was rebuked by those attending the event. Some residents jeered at the governor and said afterward that police should focus less on quelling protests and more on investigating Brown’s death.
That sentiment persisted as night fell at the site of the protests, with a group of residents pledging to remain in the streets. A crowd of mostly young males gathered and chanted “No justice, no curfew,” while more than 100 police officers began to assemble around armored trucks.
Several of the protesters faced the officers, putting their hands in the air.
“This is a bunch of egos, this is about dominance,” said Charles Mayo, a 45-year-old from St. Louis. “Stop bullying us. This is not martial law. They’re agitating the situation.”
Comparing the events in Ferguson to the 1960s civil rights movement in the U.S., Mayo said in an interview that he was willing to be arrested for breaking the curfew, which he called “unfair, unconstitutional, and premature.”
Less than 10 minutes later, Mayo and other protesters were running for cover as tear gas and the sound of shots filled the air. Some in the crowd said they were struck by rubber bullets.
It was the second day of confrontations since the highway patrol assumed responsibility for security in Ferguson on Aug. 14. Nixon ordered the change in leadership after Obama called him with concerns that Ferguson police had used military-style force on protesters and journalists.
Johnson said yesterday that police wouldn’t use armored vehicles and tear gas to enforce the curfew.
Some residents talked about defying the curfew before it began.
“It’s just a way for them to infringe upon people’s First Amendment rights to protest for justice for Michael Brown,” said Michael Sampson, a 25-year-old organizer who traveled to Missouri from Tallahassee, Florida, to attend the protests.
The violence came the day after authorities, who had kept the name of the officer who shot Brown secret for a week, identified him as Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran with no disciplinary record.
Police also released documents describing Brown as a suspect in a store robbery, which was recorded by a security camera shortly before his death.
The news conference devolved into a raucous town hall meeting, with community members shouting down Nixon and Johnson.
Some pressed for more answers about the shooting death, while others shouted that Wilson should be arrested for murder. U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay told the crowd that their anger was “misdirected,” because neither Johnson nor Nixon are in charge of the investigation into Brown’s death.
“On a state charge of murder, the county prosecutor files charges,” said Clay, a Democrat from St. Louis. Clay urged residents to be patient as federal officials complete a parallel investigation alongside county officials.
That didn’t placate the crowd.
Johnson and Nixon struggled to complete their sentences as people shouted questions. Johnson said that while he isn’t in charge of the investigation, he wanted to reassure the community that authorities are gathering evidence.
About 40 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents came to Ferguson yesterday to interview witnesses to Brown’s shooting death, Johnson said. He said anyone with information about the shooting should cooperate with investigators.
Police have said Brown had attacked Wilson before he was shot to death. Residents say Brown had raised his hands in surrender before he died.