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Ferguson protests turn violent

The Justice Department orders a federal autopsy on Brown's body hours after police in riot gear cracked down on crowds of protesters.
A law enforcement officer watches Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, as tear gas is fired to disperse a crowd protesting the shooting of teenager Michael Brown last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo.
A law enforcement officer watches Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, as tear gas is fired to disperse a crowd protesting the shooting of teenager Michael Brown last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo.

FERGUSON, Missouri – Amid continuing unrest here more than a week after the shooting death of Michael Brown, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a second autopsy to be performed by a federal medical examiner. The announcement came after another violent night in Ferguson as police in riot gear cracked down on crowds of protesters who dug their heels in defiance against a midnight curfew.

Brown, 18 and unarmed, was shot and killed on August 9 by a Ferguson police officer identified by the department as Darren Wilson. The Justice Department is conducting a civil rights investigation into the incident. NBC News identified a photo of Wilson on Sunday.

"Due to the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family, Attorney General Holder has instructed Justice Department officials to arrange for an additional autopsy to be performed by a federal medical examiner," Justice Department Spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement released Sunday. "This independent examination will take place as soon as possible. Even after it is complete, Justice Department officials still plan to take the state-performed autopsy into account in the course of their investigation."

Overnight, shortly after the state-imposed curfew went into effect, officers fired rounds of smoke and tear gas at the protesters even after assuring the public earlier in the day that they would not take such extreme measures.

At least one person was shot, a police car was fired on and seven protesters were arrested for "failing to disperse." Two of those arrested were Ferguson residents, the rest were from nearby towns.

“I’m disappointed by the acts of tonight,” said Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson.

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 roadblocks 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.

The clash marked the seventh full day of protests, a few of which were punctuated by looting or violence by both police and protesters.

Aided by streams of pouring rain, police were able to disperse the majority of the crowds within 90 minutes of the state-ordered curfew. 

But a much smaller 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.

Not long after, officers rolled out into the night in armored vehicles as a large crowd began to march down W. Florissant Avenue and toward a staging area for press and the police. Officers were ordered to “fall in” and they dropped into formation, stretching from sidewalk to sidewalk.

Related: Photo of Officer Darren Wilson identified

Officers then fired off a series of smoke and tear gas canisters in rapid succession, followed by what at least sounded like a percussion grenade.

The barrage sent dozens of protesters scattering, though many others seemed emboldened by assault and stood their ground in the middle of the street.

During a press conference an hour or so after the operation had wrapped up, Johnson told reporters that the highly militarized tactical operation employed against the protesters was not in response to the group breaking curfew. Johnson said that commanders uncovered a plot by a group of armed protesters to ambush officers as they set out to enforce the curfew.

“I think that was a proper response tonight,” Johnson said.

“It was effective,” he said. “We sustained the health of those businesses and we also sustained the safety of the protesters who were out around tonight.”

Johnson said that a few gunmen had broken into a restaurant, climbed onto its roof and planned on waiting for officers to march past. He said much of the tactical operation was focused on the restaurant, Red’s BBQ, on the corner of W. Florissant and Canfield. Johnson said the gunmen got away as police closed in behind a sheet of smoke and tear gas.

“We encountered the subject and he had the weapon,” Johnson said. “As we got closer, we deployed the tear gas and then he ran off.”

Johnson said another man was critically wounded by gunfire and that he was taken to a nearby hospital by fellow protesters. Police aren’t sure who shot the man and said officers ramped up their smoke and gas assault on protesters in an attempt to secure the wounded man.

A few other witnesses told reporters that some of the hangers on in Ferguson on Sunday morning were armed. One of the witnesses, a man who emerged from the other end of the street where the police had engaged protesters, said that he heard gunfire coming from the crowd. Alderman Antonio French, whose district includes Ferguson, said that he too saw some curfew-breakers with guns.

He called them a “rough bunch” who’d been hoping to get into an armed confrontation with police. But he said the majority of the late-night protesters were those who believed the curfew violated their constitutional rights to free speech and protest.

“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,” Gov. Nixon said of the curfew just hours before the violent outbursts. “If we are to achieve justice we must first have and maintain peace. This is a test. The eyes of the world are watching.”