FERGUSON, Missouri – Multiple shootings, fire bombs and tear gas marked the worst night of violence in the St. Louis suburb that has been engulfed in tensions since a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager on Aug. 9.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced early Monday that he was “directing the highly capable men and women of the Missouri National Guard to assist,” in restoring peace and order to the community.
The protesters marched toward a police command center set up in a shopping mall parking lot when heavily armed law enforcement fired on the crowd using tear gas and rubber bullets. An msnbc reporter witnessed children suffering the effects of the gas, including two young African-American girls – one dressed in a pink tank top coughing as she struggled to push the shirt up over her mouth and nose while a woman rushed her from the scene.
Hours later, after a midnight curfew was in place and the streets were largely quiet, Captain Ron Johnson told reporters that the aggressive response came after multiple shootings — some aimed at police — Molotov cocktails and looting had occurred in what he claimed was an orchestrated effort ”designed to damage property, hurt people and provoke a response.” Johnson, the Missouri Highway Patrol Captain, assigned by Nixon to help restore calm in Ferguson, said at least two people were injured in the shootings but that no police officers were hurt.
Johnson said early Monday morning. Feeling under assault, Johnson said he had no alternative but to elevate the police presence and disperse protesters. He said he was “determined to restore peace and safety to the people of Ferguson.” After what started as a calm day in Ferguson, “peace and justice took a dark turn,”
Nixon charged that the violence had been carried out by “an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state, whose actions are putting the residents and business of Ferguson at risk.” He called the violence “a disservice to the family of Michael Brown and to the people of his community who yearn for justice to be served.”
There were multiple incidents of vandalism and looting over a three hour period that began around 8pm local time. Johnson said multiple businesses including a Family Dollar Store, a pizza shop and a storage office were looted. A McDonald’s restaurant was overrun by protesters, he said, and employees had barricaded themselves in a store room when police arrived. Another convenience store was ablaze. Several reporters attempting to cover the events said they were briefly arrested while others said they were threatened with arrest.
The numbers of participants in the violence appeared to be small. Police said there had been about eight arrests during the evening but Johnson did not say whether any shooting suspects were in custody. Earlier Sunday, several reporters saw what appeared to be a dead body in the middle of Chambers street. But police did not report any fatalities.
Earlier, another msnbc reporter in the same area witnessed protesters, including teenagers and young children fleeing as the sounds of live gunfire rang out along the corridor where Chambers meets West Florissant – a hotbed of protest in recent days. A second msnbc reporter passed by a group of four armed teenaged boys who were firing live rounds from pistols into the air as they headed toward that intersection.
Several journalists announced on Twitter that they had been arrested including Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated who said he was being held by police along with two other reporters. Rob Crilly of the British newspaper Telegraph also said he was in custody. Hours later, as midnight arrived and a curfew set in, the streets appeared calm.
Sunday had begun peacefully with prayer services and a rally in support of the family of Michael Brown, the unarmed teen who was shot six times, a newly released autopsy report showed Sunday by a white member of the Ferguson police force.
But the predominately African-American town, grieving and enraged by police tactics since the killings, had grown more tense in recent days. Gov. Jay Nixon imposed a state of emergency Saturday and order a midnight curfew. But that has not deterred some protesters.
Sunday’s violence erupted along the town’s main thoroughfares three hours before the curfew was to take effect. An enormous police presence, including state and local law enforcement manned and set up perimeters around the area. A police helicopter circled overhead while armored vehicles patrolled the streets. One police van drove down West Florissant with the backdoor open while armed police inside pointed their weapons to the streets.
Four young men who appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s struggled to successfully light a Molotov cocktail. T-shirts wrapped around their faces masked their identities. As they threw one fire bomb toward police, it extinguished before making contact with the ground. Others threw glass bottles.
Although authorities confirmed gunshots were fired, they have not said by whom and from where. Meanwhile, protestors who came out for peaceful show of support for the Brown family were furious.
“All we was doing was marching,” said Lisha Williams, a local protestor who was tear gassed, told msnbc.
This turn of events comes as members of the community, neighbors and supporters stood in solidarity with Brown’s family, bringing together local leaders and civil rights icons to offer a respite from clashing tensions between protesters and police.
Captain Johnson, an African-American resident of Ferguson who has become a local hero for supporters wanting to rally peacefully in the streets, honored the slain teen and thanked him for the movement he inspired.
“This is my neighborhood. You are my family. You are my friends. And I am you,” Johnson said, bringing the more than 1,300 people convened at Greater Grace Church to their feet in applause.
“When this is over – I’m gonna go to my son’s room, my black son, who wears his pants sagging, who wears his hat cocked to the side, who’s got tattoos on his arms … But that’s my baby,” Johnson said to more cheers.
The mood inside the rally, organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s advocacy group National Action Network, was unified but somber as leaders called for swift due process with investigations into Brown’s case.
Earlier that morning, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered for a federal medical examiner to perform a second autopsy. The move to bring an outside opinion to aid investigations builds on festering skepticism among community members that local authorities will be able to properly handle the case.
Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing the Brown family, condemned the local police department for initiating a “smear” campaign against the late teen’s character.
“Your community deserves transparency,” Crump said to the crowd. “You all deserve to know that the police department will work in the best interests of you children.”
“There is nothing that can justify the execution style murder of Lesley’s child in broad daylight by this police officer,” he added, motioning toward the slain teen’s mother, Lesley Brown, who appeared onstage with her husband, Michael Brown Sr., but did not speak.
Ty Pruitt, a cousin of Michael Brown, greeted the crowd with the now familiar “Hand’s up, don’t shoot” refrain, popular with Ferguson protesters. “[Michael] was a son. He was an uncle, a nephew. He was not a suspect. He was not an object. He was not an animal … but that’s how he was killed.”
Sharpton, who also hosts MSNBC’s “Politics Nation,” gave a fiery oration in which he called the fallout from Michael Brown’s death a “defining moment in this country.”
“These parents are not going to cry alone. They are not going to stand alone. And they’re not going to fight alone. We’ve had enough!” he said.
“You can’t get to the White House without stopping by our house and talk about policing.”
Sharpton also put the events in Ferguson in a political context.“Where are the leading candidates for president?” Sharpton asked rhetorically. “Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, don’t get laryngitis on this issue. You can’t get to the White House without stopping by our house and talk about policing.”
He said he had never seen anything “more despicable” in all his years as an activist, as the Ferguson PD’s decision to “spit on the name and character of a young man who hasn’t even been buried,” by releasing the controversial surveillance footage which purports to show Brown shoplifting in a local convenience store moments before his death.
Sharpton also condemned those who have resorted to violence and crime in the wake of protests. “Don’t loot in Michael Brown’s name,” he said. “We’re not looters we’re liberators.” He concluded his initial remarks by calling on the community to get more active politically.
“Michael Brown is gonna change this town,” he said, before criticizing the paltry voting record on the area. “12% turnout is an insult to your children.”
A standing ovation erupted during a powerful cameo appearance from Howard University graduate Mya Aaten-White, a young woman who was wounded in the head while protesting for Brown in Ferguson. She is said to be making a full recovery. She didn’t speak to the audience but shared a long embrace with Michael Brown’s parents.
Hundreds more gathered outside of the church in support of the family in hopes that the movement galvanized by the peaceful demonstrations would lead to real change.
“This is not just a black/white issue — this is a human issue,” said Ferguson resident Lisa Williams. “If we all come together on this, then we can make a difference not only for African-American lives, but all children.”