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No bullets, no tear gas mark 'turning point' in Ferguson

Confrontations between police and protesters remained relatively calm for the first time more than a week after the shooting death of an unarmed black teen.
August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
A demonstrator raises his arms before police officers move in to arrest him on Aug. 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

FERGUSON, Missouri — As midnight arrived on the 10th evening of demonstrations here, a small group of people protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown began throwing plastic bottles in actions eerily similar to what set off confrontations with police the previous night. Peacemakers formed a line around the instigators, and officers called for groups to disperse and for media to return to the staging area. Multiple people were restrained with their arms tied behind their backs and placed in a St. Louis County Police van. 

The flurry of activity came on the heels of what seemed to be the first calm night after a series of chaotic run-ins between protesters and police. Shortly before the flare-up, protesters were calling for people to reconvene in the morning at St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office.  

Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson held a short press conference at 2 a.m. CT and said that the evening represented a "turning point" for the city. The police fired no bullets, used no tear gas or smoke bombs, and only used a limited amount of pepper spray, he said. There were 47 arrests by 1 a.m. and two handguns were seized. Johnson added that the bottles thrown around midnight led officers to don helmet shields and search for the agitators among the crowd. He also said those who threw the bottles hid behind the media.

Attorney General Eric Holder will visit Ferguson Wednesday and he promised a full and uncompromising civil rights investigation into the shooting death of Brown.

As night descended, younger protesters had begun to dominate the crowd, chanting "We young, we strong, we marching all night long." Police formed a line in the street, facing an area where people were dancing in front of a truck with a sign reading "No shoot, No loot." 

"They need to keep moving. If they don't move, take them to jail," Missouri State Troopers said to protesters as a crowd of other people swarmed the area to assert their right to gather. 

Earlier in the day, St. Louis County Police confirmed that two officers opened fire on a 23-year-old after he allegedly brandished a knife at police, acted “erratically” and told the officers to kill him. It was the second police shooting death in St. Louis area in less than two weeks. An immediate and detailed account of the shooting given by police officers came in stark contrast to the dribbles of information on Brown, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Department veteran Darren Wilson.

Public outrage over Brown’s death has sparked rounds of unrest with days of largely peaceful protests marred by almost nightly outbursts of violence and looting, along with a highly aggressive, militarized police response.

Following 10 long days and nights of protests, local officials for the City of Ferguson issued a statement Tuesday begging residents and protesters to quell uprisings before nightfall.

"It is our hope that as we continue to work for the wellbeing of Ferguson, residents will stay home at night, allow peace to settle in, and allow for the justice process to take its course," the mayor, members of the City Council and city employees wrote in the statement. 

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who tasked the National Guard to aid enforcement efforts, acknowledged that the heightened police presence has made it difficult to ensure the public's safety while also allowing protesters to exercise their First Amendment rights.

"As we've seen over the past week, it is not an easy balance to strike," Nixon said Tuesday in a statement. "And it becomes much more difficult in the dark of night, when organized and increasingly violent instigators take to the streets intent on creating chaos and lawlessness."

Nixon called for "vigorous prosecution" in pursuing Brown's case amid calls for local officials to recuse themselves from the investigation. Nixon emphasized that he would not call on McCulloch, the lead prosecutor on the case, to hand over the investigation, saying doing so could "unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty" into the case. In an interview on The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said she agreed with Nixon and supported McCulloch's investigation. 

Brown’s family now awaits the results of the federal autopsy completed Tuesday. A separate autopsy, conducted on the behest of the Brown family, found that the 18-year-old suffered from at least six gunshot wounds. The medical examiner hired to perform the autopsy said the final fatal shots — one through the top of Brown's head and another through his eye — suggested that he was surrendering when the officer opened fire.

Amid calls for justice from the community, Johnson cautioned Tuesday that it could be weeks before Wilson is arrested. Ed Magee, spokesman for McCulloch, said investigators have already interviewed Brown's shooter, and will be able to offer testimony before a county grand jury beginning Wednesday.

Brown’s family, meanwhile, is moving forward with plans to hold funeral services for their teenage son held next week on Monday morning at a church in St. Louis. MSNBC's Rev. Al Sharpton will deliver Brown's eulogy.

Attorneys representing the Brown family called on federal authorities to become involved in their son's case after conveying mistrust that local officials would conduct the investigation fairly. The family has accused the Ferguson police of employing “smear tactics” against Brown’s character. 

Holder vowed that the Justice Department's investigation would provide much-needed answers and called for calm in an open letter published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson: Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent," Holder wrote. "I urge the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord."