Aug. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Police fired tear gas at protesters and 31 people were arrested in a St. Louis suburb rocked by 10 days of civil unrest after a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.
Lines of police in riot gear pointed assault weapons at about 50 demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, last night as authorities broadcast calls for people to leave the area and arrested those who didn’t. Protesters hurled bottles and Molotov cocktails, and gunshots were fired, wounding two people, according to police. The victims, both male, weren’t shot by police, authorities said.
The state National Guard began protecting the authorities’ command center about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the disturbances following a mobilization by Governor Jay Nixon.
“These are not acts of protesters; these are acts of violent criminals,” Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, appointed by Nixon to direct security in the city, told reporters. “We just had officers in the midst of gunfire. I stood there and listened over the radio to the screams of those officers. We can’t have this. We do not want to lose another life in this community.”
Protesters are calling for charges against the officer involved in the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. A grand jury will begin an investigation tomorrow, said Ed Magee, a spokesman for the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney.
President Barack Obama yesterday dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to meet with federal and local authorities in Ferguson. The killing of Brown on Aug. 9 and images of armored trucks shooting tear gas and flash grenades at protesters have drawn international attention to the town of 21,000 that’s become a symbol of racial inequality and heavy-handed police tactics in the U.S.
Last night’s clashes broke out shortly before 10 p.m. and came even as Nixon lifted a midnight curfew in a bid to ease tensions after three consecutive nights of violent clashes between protesters and police. The city remained tense as it entered the 11th day of unrest.
Johnson suggested peaceful demonstrators appear in Ferguson during daylight hours today to voice their concerns and separate themselves from people bent on violence at night.
While earlier looting forced the boarding up or destruction of more than a dozen businesses on West Florissant Avenue, the focus of overnight protests was clearly aimed at the police and the lack of charges against the officer who shot Brown. Four police officers were injured by rocks and bottles, according to Johnson.
Police targeted individuals in the dwindling crowd, arresting them and putting them in large armored vehicles. Protesters from as far away as California and New York were among the 31 people arrested, Johnson said. Dinah Tatman, minister of St. John AME Church in St. Louis, pleaded with a young man who wanted to confront police in riot gear. Although she succeeded in defusing that situation, police launched tear gas cannisters and stun grenades a few minutes later.
Even as protesters resisted police calls to move off the street, pastors and local activists urged some residents to comply with the requests of authorities. Malik Shabazz of the Black Lawyers for Justice stood between police clad in riot gear and protesters, and encouraged the crowd to back away. Shabazz led the efforts to calm the most agitated protesters.
“We don’t want to create an environment where the police get more power, and everybody start calling for the police,” Shabazz said while speaking to reporters. “So we got to get order as black men in our own community.”
Before the violence erupted last night, some protesters said they were encouraged that their complaints about mistreatment at the hands of Ferguson police are getting a proper airing. An autopsy showing Brown was shot six times by officer Darren Wilson is a sign of progress, said Bishop Edwin Bass of the Cogic Urban Initiatives Inc., of St. Louis.
“It validates the concerns that African Americans have been raising for a long time,” Bass said, standing in front of a boarded up beauty shop damaged during earlier street disturbances. “This brings it to light.”
The prolonged unrest in Ferguson over the Brown shooting is a reflection of simmering dissatisfaction among black people across the St. Louis region, said Michael Bland, a 23-year-old maintenance mechanic who lives in the suburb of Maryland Heights.
“This is a breaking point for a lot of people who are fed up with harassment and racial profiling,” Bland said. “This isn’t a white and black thing. This is a police and black thing.”
Authorities have been slow in releasing information about the shooting, waiting seven days to identify Wilson. The city and the police department were sued yesterday by the National Bar Association for documents related to the shooting, according to Brian Henderson, a spokesman for the organization.
Some protesters complained that police were violating their freedom to assemble, and some made obscene gestures toward officers.
“The cops are just reacting without a lot of thought,” said Billy Moreno, a 33-year-old from Austin, Texas, who said he came to Ferguson to protest police brutality. “The only coordination they have is in executing force.”
Obama addressed the unrest yesterday and said Holder would travel to Ferguson tomorrow.
“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,” Obama said at the White House. “It undermines rather than advancing justice.”
One protester, Rashonda Saffore, said the unrest will stop “whenever they arrest the police officer.”
Saffore, 23, a graduate student from neighboring Florissant, walked the strip of damaged businesses carrying a sign reading, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
“If it was a black guy killing a white person, you know he’d be sitting in jail,” Saffore said.
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