Michael Brown shooting: Gunshots and buildings set ablaze as Ferguson gripped by protests after grand jury decides not to indict officer
The St Louis suburb of Ferguson was once again gripped by violent protests last night, after a grand jury chose not to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot dead Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on August 9.
Buildings and cars were torched, businesses looted and the sound of gunfire punctuated the febrile atmosphere at regular intervals as demonstrators and armoured police clashed across parts of the city following the announcement at 8pm local time.
Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired by police, while a Walgreens pharmacy and a Little Caesars pizza place were both gutted by fire. A public storage facility, petrol stations and other restaurants were also set ablaze.
As President Barack Obama made a televised address in which he appealed for calm, the family of Michael Brown said they were "profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child" had not been not indicted.
Earlier Mr Brown’s parents, Michael Brown Sr and Lesley McSpadden, had urged for calm and asked demonstrators to observe four-and-a-half minutes of silence between the announcement of the grand jury decision and the start of any protest, to mark the four-and-a-half hours that their son’s body spent lying on Canfield Drive following the shooting.
But their calls went unheeded - and the situation in Ferguson quickly deteriorated.
The heavily-armed police presence struggled to contain sporadic flare-ups of violence in the main strip of West Florissant Avenue - the focal point of much of the demonstrators' anger.
Rampant looting was also witnessed, with one group of people seen running into a phone shop, screaming: "Free phones!"
Elsewhere, a Swat team officers had chunks of loose tarmac hurled at them as they tried to drag a demonstrator to an armoured vehicle.
At one point, The Independent's reporter was punched in the face by protesters shortly after they set fire to a row of cars, one by one, in a parking lot as the riots spread.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said he heard some 150 shots fired at police, adding "I didn't see a lot of peaceful protests out there."
He said 29 people had been arrested and that the rioting had been worse than it was immediately after the shooting in the summer.
Large crowds of demonstrators again chanted ‘hands up don’t shoot’ after gathering throughout the evening at the police department in Ferguson, and outside the Buzz Westfall Justice Centre in nearby Clayton, from where St Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch finally officially announced the grand jury’s decision.
Mr McCulloch also dismissed many of the statements made soon after the shooting by witnesses whose accounts were found to differ significantly from the physical evidence. Some, he said, had later admitted that they did not see the shooting, but were merely recounting what they had heard from others. Mr McCulloch also described the “insatiable” appetite of the 24-hour news cycle as a serious challenge for the grand jury process.
Also revealed were images of Officer Wilson taken in the emergency department at Christian Hospital in St Louis shortly after the killing, which show red swelling on his right cheek. He testified during the hearing that he had been punched in the face by Michael Brown.
Earlier in the day, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon visited Ferguson and spoke at a press conference, where he was joined by other officials including St Louis County executive Charlie Dooley, St Louis Mayor Francis Slay and the state’s director of public safety, Dan Isom. “Our shared hope and expectation is that regardless of the decision, people on all sides show tolerance, mutual respect and restraint,” Nixon said.
People in the St Louis area had been awaiting the news nervously, fearful of a repeat of the scenes seen on screens across the world in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when angry demonstrators clashed with police in riot gear, who rode in armoured vehicles, fired tear gas and made dozens of arrests. Police and protesters had both insisted they were better prepared this time, and promised to respond without violence.
The grand jury, which has been meeting weekly for three months behind closed doors, finally reached its verdict on Monday morning. Under Missouri law, a 12-person grand jury does not need to reach a unanimous verdict, but can indict with a majority of nine to three.
The panel of six white men, three white women, two black women and one black man were asked to determine whether there was “probable cause” to indict Officer Wilson on a number of charges, ranging from involuntary manslaughter to murder. Instead, they found that “no probable cause exists to file any charge against Officer Wilson,” Mr McCulloch said.
Supporters of Officer Wilson, who is 28, characterised the shooting of 18-year-old Mr Brown on Ferguson’s Canfield Drive as an act of self-defence; he is believed to have testified personally to that effect in front of the grand jury, saying Mr Brown assaulted him. Yet other witnesses insisted Mr Brown had his hands raised in surrender when the fatal shots were fired.
Ferguson’s population is predominantly black, but the ranks of its police department are almost exclusively white. The shooting set off a national debate on the attitude of law enforcement to the black community, and particularly on the multiple shootings of young, black men by police officers. As those tensions boiled over in the summer, protesters blamed police for their military-style response, while police accused protesters of looting and violence.
Speaking to ABC News at the weekend, President Barack Obama implored protesters and police to eschew further violence in the wake of the decision, and said he had asked the outgoing US Attorney General, Eric Holder, “to engage nationally in a conversation between law enforcement and communities of colour... Lack of trust between communities and law enforcement crops up not just in Ferguson, but in places all across the country.”
A handful of protesters were arrested at small demonstrations in the days leading up to yesterday’s announcement. The protests last night and in the coming days were to be policed by several law enforcement agencies, including county, state and St Louis metropolitan officers. Governor Nixon had declared a state of emergency in readiness for the verdict, and deployed the Missouri National Guard to provide additional security at firehouses, police stations and utility substations. Ferguson schools were to be closed today.
Yet in spite of the anxieties of residents and businesspeople, many of whom boarded up their premises in anticipation of unrest, the fresh demonstrations seemed likely to be far better organised than the chaotic clashes of August. In the intervening months, activist groups have preached peaceful tactics and trained hundreds of prospective protesters in non-violent civil disobedience. Meanwhile, law enforcement chiefs, from Mr Holder on down, have urged police to take a more measured approach to any protests.
Wilson, a police officer since 2009, has not been seen in public since 9 August. He has been on paid leave but is thought to have been preparing to leave the Ferguson force regardless of the grand jury’s decision. The New York Times reported yesterday that he had quietly married Barbara Spradling, a fellow Ferguson police officer, in St Louis last month.
In an earlier statement , Mr Brown's family said: “We are not here to be violent. “We are here in memory of our son. We are here for protection of all children. We are here to support justice and equality for all people. We lift our voices to ensure black and brown men, women and children can live in this country without being devalued because of the colour of our skin.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital