FERGUSON, Mo. – Protests in the St. Louis suburb rocked by racial unrest since a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager to death turned violent Wednesday night, with people lobbing Molotov cocktails at police who responded with smoke bombs and tear gas to disperse the crowd.
The night before, another man was shot and critically wounded in Ferguson by police who said he pointed a handgun at an officer.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, who has been the public face of the city torn by Saturday’s death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, told reporters earlier in the day that the St. Louis County investigation of the shooting could take weeks to complete. In the meantime, he said, his department welcomes Justice Department training on racial relations in the suburb, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black while all but three of the police force’s 53 officers are white.
Unfortunately, an undertow (of racial unrest) has bubbled to the surface, Jackson said. Race relations is the top priority right now.
While Jackson said he wanted to mend fences with the community, protesters were on the streets of Ferguson again Wednesday, facing heavily armed police who at time trained weapons on them from an armored truck. Two reporters said they were detained by police while working at a McDonald’s in the area.
The situation became more tense after nightfall, with police ordering people to go home and then using smoke bombs and later tear gas after some people threw Molotov cocktails and other things at them. Journalists who witnessed the events included an Associated Press photographer.
St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schellman said he had no immediate information about the situation.
Earlier, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post said they were handcuffed and put into a police van after officers came in to quickly clear the fast-food restaurant where they were doing some work.
The Post reported that Lowery said he was slammed against a soda machine and plastic cuffs were put on his wrists. The reporters were subsequently released without any charges.
Jackson did not immediately return a cellphone message Wednesday night from the AP seeking comment.
Police have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car. The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times.
In their initial news conference about the shooting, police didn’t specify whether Brown was the person who scuffled with the officer in the car and have refused to clarify their account.
Jackson said Wednesday that the officer involved suffered swelling facial injuries.
Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown when the shooting happened, has told a much different story. He has told media outlets that the officer ordered them out of the street, then tried to open his door so close to the men that it ricocheted back, apparently upsetting the officer. Johnson says the officer grabbed his friend’s neck, then tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing.
He says Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times. Johnson and another witness both say Brown was on the street with his hands raised when the officer fired at him repeatedly.
On Wednesday, some protesters Wednesday raised their arms above their heads as they faced the police. Others held signs asking for answers about Brown’s death. The most popular chant has been, Hands up! Don’t shoot!
After the shooting, Brown’s body remained on the street for hours – a span Jackson deemed uncomfortable but justified, given that you only get one chance at that crime scene to process it correctly.
In the shooting’s aftermath, the notorious hacking collective Anonymous has taken credit for burrowing into the city website and shutting it down for much of the day Monday. The group also released what it said were audio excerpts from St. Louis County dispatch on the day Brown was killed.
The mystery of the officer’s identity has fanned the discord, with Jackson arguing that revealing that detail could bring retribution to the officer whose life since Saturday has been countlessly threatened.
But civil rights activists and the attorney for Brown’s family, all pressing for calm amid nights of unrest since Brown’s death, counter that knowing the officer’s name may help the area to heal, allowing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others to dig into the officer’s background for any prior brutality.
We don’t want anyone’s life threatened. If someone like this officer is killed, then there is no justice, said John Gaskin III of St. Louis County’s NAACP chapter.
On Tuesday, hackers posted pictures of St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar’s home and family online, as well as his home address and telephone number in hopes of pressuring him to release the officer’s name.
Realistically, what positive could come from that information coming out? Jackson said. Right now, people want it so they can destroy that person’s life. That’s the only reason that group’s asking for it.
But community members said they want to know who the officer is.
We have the right to know, and the family has the right to know who murdered their son, said Sahari Gutierrez, a 27-year-old Ferguson legal assistant.
Johnson, the witness whose statements contradict police’s account of their encounter with Brown, has appeared for the past three days on national cable networks at the side of his lawyer, former St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.
Bosley, who complained earlier this week that investigators were not initially interested in speaking with Johnson, said Wednesday morning that he was picking up Johnson to take him to meet with authorities.
Late Wednesday afternoon, St. Louis County police said they were interviewing Johnson after being unable to locate him earlier in the week. Bosley said Wednesday night that his client was meeting with FBI agents.