FERGUSON, Missouri— By early Saturday morning a day of peaceful protests gave way to tear gas and sporadic bouts of looting.
Police officers in riot gear blocked off a section of West Florissant Avenue as the protests over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown unraveled into bedlam. Some crashed through businesses while others formed human barriers along the storefronts to ward off looters.
“There were 300 protesters last night, but the protesters went home and the looters came out,” said Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who took over security efforts in Ferguson on Thursday.
Lines of armored cars stood by, parked just yards away from a broken-in liquor store, as officers told protesters over loudspeakers that they must clear the streets and go home for the night.
“When the people are peaceful, the police throw the tear gas,” said Steven Roach, “When there’s a riot, they just sit back.”
After days of turmoil, the Ferguson community woke up Friday expecting police to finally reveal the identity of the officer who shot and killed Brown. What they got was a police report – including video surveillance – captured in the last hour of Brown’s life from a convenience store camera, showing he and a friend allegedly stealing cigars.
Police Chief Thomas Jackson framed the new information in a way that suggested the officer who shot Brown had been on the hunt for a robbery suspect.
The Brown family was enraged, as was the community. And then it got worse.
Early on Friday morning Jackson held a press conference in which he named Darren Wilson as the officer that killed the unarmed teen. But overshadowing the long awaited release of the officer’s identity was the packet on Brown.
And at a later news conference, Jackson said the officer hadn’t stopped Brown in connection with the robbery at all.
“Everyone out here, we’re mad and frustrated for a reason. Because we are not getting the truth,” said Gerald McNary. “They gave us a name. But we have a lot more questions. We are Ferguson citizens and we don’t know what he’s doing about any of this or how he plans on making us feel safe. Because I don’t feel safe in this neighborhood full of cops with guns.”
Jackson has also presented yet another version of the Saturday afternoon encounter between Brown and Wilson, telling NBC News that the officer “at some point” noticed that Brown had stolen cigars in his possession.
A wave of confusion and anger swept through those gathered at the press conferences and others who listened over loud speakers near the scene of the shooting.
“Whatever he did or they say he did has nothing to do with him getting executed in the street by that officer,” said Baron Allen. “It’s a smear campaign.”
During a hastily called press conference on Friday afternoon, the family’s attorney called the release strategically planned “smoke and mirrors.”
“We must always not lose sight of what happened here, that Michael Brown was killed execution style in the middle of Canfield on that dreadful day last Saturday,” said Daryl Parks, one of the family’s lawyers. “There’s a lot of other side things that are taking place that have nothing to do with his death at that very moment and what that officer did. So let’s not lose sight of that.”
Earlier in the week, riot police stormed protestors who gathered after nightfall, firing off rounds of tear gas, wooden pellets and stun grenades to disperse the crowds. Once the clouds cleared, local and national officials came forward Thursday to condemn the aggressive police presence. To diffuse the rising tensions, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon dispatched Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, an African-American, to head the security efforts as protestors grew weary of the many gaps in Brown’s case.
Eyewitness testimony and police accounts piece together a hazy timeline of events both before and after Brown was gunned down. The police chief said Friday that officers caught Brown jaywalking and blocking traffic on the typically quiet, residential street. Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend who said he was with him during the altercation, recounted being told by the police to get on the sidewalk.
From there, various accounts of Brown’s final moments begin to diverge. According to police, Brown assaulted the officer in his vehicle and attempted to take his gun. But a separate eyewitness at the scene said she was just feet away when she saw the officer try to pull Brown into his vehicle. After a few moments of tug-a-war with Brown resisting the officer, Tiffany Mitchell said she heard a gunshot go off and then saw the 18-year-old run away from the vehicle. That’s when she said the officer got out of his car and fired several shots at the teen.
Both eyewitnesses said Brown’s hands were in the air before he collapsed from the multiple shots the officer fired at him.
Hours after police released the officer’s identity, the public still knew very little about Darren Wilson, Brown’s alleged killer. Chief Jackson described Wilson as a “quiet, gentle man … an excellent officer.” The six-year veteran of the department was placed on administrative leave pending the investigation.
Still, protestors might be heartened to learn that late on Friday the ACLU of Missouri scored a victory in its effort to protect the right of citizens to record police in St. Louis County and the city of Ferguson. Authorities from the county, city and the Missouri Highway Patrol all signed off a taping “unless it obstructs the activities or threatens the safety of others, or physically interferes with the ability of law enforcement officers to perform their duties.”
This action comes on the heels of reports that people shooting video of the protests that led to tear-gassing by police on Wednesday evening were being commanded to turn off their recording equipment.
“The role of both the media and the ACLU is to make sure that the rule of law is being followed,” explains Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “It will be easier to do that in Ferguson, now that all parties agree the media, and the public at large, have the right to record police interactions.”
Meanwhile, the latest revelations in the case, and the bumbling way in which they were presented, came after a day that began quietly. But as news of the department’s release spread, the collective anger among many residents began to bubble.
By 3 p.m. protestors began to assemble en mass along W. Florissant Road. Reinforcements restocked coolers with water bottles and brought food for protestors. The cacophony of horns blowing grew louder. And it seemed that the anger emboldened those who believe the department isn’t being transparent about the events surrounding Brown’s death.
Tommy Chatman-Bey, who said he was in the neighborhood when the killing happened and heard the gunshots, said the more the police drag their feet on the facts of the case, the more resentment they will breed.
“They still haven’t told us how many times he was shot, but they’re telling us he stole a pack of cigarillos? You know how much they cost? Two for 99 cents,” Chatman-Bey said.
“They keep saying multiple shots. Several shots. I don’t know what those words mean. Don’t give me a word salad, tell me the truth,” he said.