Hundreds of people rallied alongside civil rights activist Al Sharpton in a St. Louis suburb, demanding that the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on Aug. 9 be charged with murder.
Yesterday’s gathering, the largest since protests marked by looting and military-style responses began, came as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for a new autopsy of the body of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Brown’s death and images of armored trucks shooting tear gas and flash grenades at protesters have drawn international attention to Ferguson, Missouri, a town of 21,000 that’s become a symbol of racial inequality and heavy-handed police tactics in the U.S.
The Brown case and its aftermath in Ferguson “will be a defining moment on how this country deals with policing and the rights of its citizens to address how police behave in this country,” Sharpton said at a Ferguson church.
President Barack Obama was monitoring the situation over the weekend while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Obama was set to be briefed by Holder on his return to Washington last night, Eric Schultz, the White House deputy press secretary, said in an e-mail.
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 from Brian Fallon, a department spokesman.
Police, after saying Aug. 16 they wouldn’t use armored trucks and tear gas, opted to do so early yesterday as 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 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.
Politicians from across the political spectrum -- from Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to Obama -- have criticized police for using armored trucks and tear gas to respond to the protests. Sharpton said the issue would be central in the 2016 presidential race.
“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 yesterday 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. 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 on Aug. 16 while declaring a state of emergency. His actions came after sporadic looting the prior day.
Local prosecutors must accelerate their investigations into Brown’s death, Nixon said.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch is “an experienced prosecutor and this is his opportunity to step up,” Nixon said yesterday 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.
About 40 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents came to Ferguson on Aug. 16 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. Residents say Brown had raised his hands in surrender before he died.