FERGUSON, Missouri – Police in riot gear cracked down on crowds of protesters who dug their heels in defiance against a midnight curfew as officers fired rounds of smoke and tear gas even after assuring the public earlier in the day that they would not take such extreme measures.
Aided by streams of pouring rain, police were able to disperse the majority of the crowds within 90 minutes of the state-ordered curfew.
The number of protesters on the streets here dwindled in the countdown to the curfew deadline as both the rain and community mediators managed to tamp down the crowd that gathered throughout the day. Ferguson’s roughly 20,000 residents were ordered to stay indoors between midnight and 5 a.m. as police manned road blocks and patrolled the streets, restricting any movement by residents who flooded into the main area of protests during the early evening hours calling for justice in the killing of Michael Brown, who was shot dead by a police officer in broad daylight on Aug. 9.
A group of protesters rejected the curfew early Sunday, chanting, “No justice, no curfew.” The group appeared to break apart after police, equipped with riot gear and accompanied by armored vehicles, fired several canisters of what NBC News confirmed was tear gas in addition to smoke at the demonstrators. An increasingly torrential downpour seemed to thin the crowd further as the night wore on.
“This is the police department. You are violating the state-imposed curfew. You must disperse immediately or be subject to arrest and or other actions,” an officer could be heard telling the protesters over a loudspeaker.
The aggressive move by Gov. Nixon to order residents, angered by a lack of accountability and what many saw as smear tactics by the police, only further enraged a town roiling since the killing.
“This is not to silence the people of Ferguson or this region or others, but to contain those that are drowning out the voice of the people with their actions,” said a visibly shaken Nixon, who faced outspoken and frustrated community members at a press conference Saturday afternoon. “If we are to achieve justice we must first have and maintain peace. This is a test. The eyes of the world are watching.”
“Why hasn’t Darren Wilson been indicted,” one community member shouted out, referring to the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown. Angry residents, betrayed by a week of police aggression and inaction regarding Wilson, interrupted and spoke over the governor, who on more than one occasion walked away from the microphone to allow other officials to address the gathering.
Reaction to the curfew was mixed.
Toi Evans, 27, who has been on the front lines of the protests since they started, said she watched the bedlam unfold on Friday night from a beauty supply store, which she was helping to safeguard against looters. She said she supports the curfew after seeing looting overnight Friday.
“I’m all for it. From being out here the last few nights, that is about the time when most of the protesters leave. Midnight is when the looters and the criminals and all of the people who aren’t really about the cause come out,” Evans said, standing along W. Florissant Ave. with several hundred other protesters.
Evans said at one point around 3 a.m. Saturday, a group of looters became more aggressive toward her and the group guarding the shop.“It was just time to go. I’m not willing to give my life for a piece of property I don’t own,” Evans said.
Members of the New Black Panther Party have called for volunteers to help them keep crowds of protesters under control, and throughout the week, members have been seen around the community, often dressed in all black, directing traffic and keeping people out of the street.
During Saturday’s press conference, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Johnson, who was tasked earlier in the week with overseeing security in Ferguson, commended the group and others who he said have played a critical role in easing tension and helping with crowd control.
But Mauricelm-Lei Millere, who said he was a medic and clinical psychologist with the New Black Panther Party, said that while he and others in the organization are hopeful for peace, resistance will be met with resistance if law enforcement uses a heavy hand in enforcing a curfew.
“We do not believe in non-violence,” Millere said. “If they advance they are going to pay the penalty. You’ve got some soldiers out here. And they ain’t scared.”
Another resident, Mel Bedford, 44, said he thought it was “outrageous to tell grown men and women that they can’t protest at any time they want to.”
Asked whether he thinks the late-night crowd will adhere to the curfew, he answered in a word: “No.”
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who was arrested amid protests earlier in the week, posted on Twitter that he supported the curfew.
The release of a police report and surveillance footage that alleged Brown had stolen cigars from a convenience store shortly before the shooting sparked fresh outrage Friday in Ferguson. Police Chief Thomas Jackson struggled to get his story straight later on Friday, at first seeming to admit that Wilson did not know Brown was a suspect in the robbery when he stopped the teenager for walking in the street. He later walked back that claim, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Wilson was aware of the robbery and eventually noticed cigars in Brown’s hands.
Federal authorities opposed the release of the surveillance tape, believing it would incite further hostilities, a law enforcement official close to the investigation told NBC News. The tape, which federal officials were also in possession of since the incident took place, was released over the objections of the Department of Justice, the official said.
Ferguson’s curfew will be imposed from midnight to 5 a.m. Sunday. The governor would not say how long the state of emergency would last, adding that he would wait for additional “situational awareness” Sunday morning before making a decision.
Johnson said the curfew would be enforced “to provide safety and security to the community.”
“We will survive this, and we will make a change,” Johnson said.