FERGUSON, Missouri — In the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, where Michael Brown — an 18-year-old unarmed teenager — was killed by Missouri police on Saturday afternoon, about 67% of the total population is comprised of African-American residents. Nearly 30% are white.
But last year, African-Americans accounted for 94% of arrests, 92% of searches, and 86% of vehicular stops, according to recent data from the Ferguson Police Department.
After days of unrest following the African-American teenager’s death, large groups of residents this week continued to demand justice in Ferguson, which has a total population of 21,000 people. Several hundred police officers confronted crowds for a second night on Monday as peaceful protests turned violent and authorities arrested 15 people. The events “precipitated the use of tear gas by the St. Louis County Police Tactical Squad in order to prevent some agitators from entering an area that was being occupied by relatively peaceful protesters,” Ferguson police spokesperson Timothy Zoll told msnbc. Additionally, drivers taunted and yelled at officials when they passed various intersections. While police wouldn’t confirm if rubber bullets were fired on protesters, a number of witnesses — including reporters and a state senator — said police launched projectiles believed to be such ammunition into the crowd.
Riots first broke out Sunday night following a candlelight vigil. Police arrested 32 people in Ferguson, where individuals smashed car windows, broke into stores, and set fire to a business. Peaceful protesters marched from the Ferguson fire station along a nearby street for the duration of Monday, at times coming face-to-face with shielded police officers who formed a barricade that spanned across the road. They raised their arms in the air, an action they said was symbolic of Brown’s surrendering position when police shot at him. Some individuals carried stuffed dogs because they said the officers treated them like animals.
Civil rights leaders on Tuesday urged Ferguson residents to remain peaceful and not to take the teenager’s name in vain because they are bitter about the situation.
“The only thing that [Brown’s parents] expressed is they want justice and fairness in the process of them losing their son. This is not a cause for them. This is their child,” Rev. Al Sharpton, of the National Action Network, said during a press conference in Ferguson. “Don’t be so angry that you distort the image of who his mother and father told us he was.”
Police have said the officer shot Brown after the teenager shoved the officer and tried to wrestle the officer’s gun from him. But several witnesses, including Dorian Johnson who spoke to msnbc on Monday, cast doubt on those claims. Police hadn’t yet interviewed Johnson as of Tuesday.
Police confirmed that Brown was unarmed and that multiple shell casings were found on the scene near his body. They also verified that the first autopsy had been completed by Monday afternoon, but didn’t release the results because of the ongoing police investigation. The family expected to receive Brown’s body later on Tuesday, once a second autopsy is performed, according to NBC News’s Ron Allen.
A toxicology report will also be conducted to determine if there were any illegal substances in Brown’s body.
Brown was 48 hours from beginning his first day of college before he was killed in daylight on Saturday near his apartment complex, his family said. The Browns have hired two local attorneys, including Benjamin Crump, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman was acquitted last summer in the 2012 shooting death of the Florida teenager.
Sharpton, a longtime civil rights activist who is also an msnbc host, requested the federal government take over the investigation because the local authorities aren’t acting transparently. They refused to release the name of the officer responsible for fatally shooting Brown despite previously saying they would disclose the details by early Tuesday afternoon. Such a decision will lead the community to distrust law enforcement, Sharpton said.
“We must find common ground,” he added, “but you can only find common ground with facts on the table.”
The officer involved in the incident is reportedly a six-year veteran of the force and has been put on administrative leave with pay, pending completion of the investigation. The police department is withholding the officer’s name because of threats made toward the officer on social media, Zoll, the police spokesperson, said. Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson will decide when it is deemed safe to release details to the public.
Local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have called on the Justice Department and federal and state law enforcement officials to take on responsibility of the investigation. Attorney General Eric Holder said the FBI, which is considering bringing civil rights violation charges in the shooting death of Brown, will help local authorities undertake a “thorough, fair investigation.”
Protesters planned to gather outside of St. Louis Country Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch’s office in nearby Clayton on Tuesday. They demanded that police identify the officer responsible for Brown’s death, then release the official from duty and charge the individual with murder. They also requested that authorities disclose the contents of their handbook to residents to determine whether the officer followed protocol, and asked the police department to be more reflective of the community’s racial demographic.
Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., told the crowd gathered in Ferguson on Tuesday: “I need justice for my son … no violence.”
President Barack Obama addressed the shooting on Tuesday, calling Brown’s death “heartbreaking.”
“I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding,” he said in a statement. “We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds. Along with our prayers, that’s what Michael and his family, and our broader American community, deserve.”
The congressional black caucus has called for an investigation from the Department of Justice, which was echoed by Missouri’s Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. While some of the state’s representatives in Washington called for action on their personal Twitter accounts, the overall reaction from lawmakers has been fairly muted.
Nisha Chittal contributed reporting.