Mike Brown protests: Fresh riots reveal deep divisions among police

Rioters defied a midnight curfew Saturday, saying they will not rest until Mike Brown's shooter is arrested. Police charged with keeping law and order are struggling with how to respond effectively but humanely.

Charlie Riedel/AP
A law enforcement officer watches Sunday as tear gas is fired to disperse a crowd protesting the shooting of teenager Michael Brown last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo.

Desperate efforts by black leaders, clergy, the Black Panthers, and Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson to get protesters in Ferguson, Mo., to heed a midnight curfew and go home Saturday failed. The result was that riot-geared police once again clashed with protesters in the wake of the Mike Brown shooting, with seven people arrested and one shot and seriously hurt, though not by police.

The situation laid bare the challenges facing Captain Johnson as he delicately seeks to steer Ferguson's protesters toward accepting a rule of law they no longer trust. Yet it also revealed the depth of the divisions within the police themselves as those attempts faltered.

Since taking command Thursday after President Obama complained to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon about the local police's military approach, Johnson’s efforts to engage protesters to quell tensions have worked to an extent. But Saturday suggested that law enforcement might be working at cross-purposes as tensions again mount.

Local authorities released a video purportedly showing Mr. Brown robbing a liquor store shortly before the shooting. Governor Nixon said he did not know the video was going to be released and told CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that the video "had an incendiary effect."

The police officer who shot Brown originally stopped him for jaywalking, not in connection with the robbery, and Nixon said the release of the video was a clear attempt to "to besmirch a victim of a shooting, shot down in his own street.... There was a lot of folks that were concerned about that, and I do think it flamed it back up and has caused us to have to deal with some of that."

Two days of largely peaceful protests ended Friday night when looters broke away from a crowd and ransacked several stores. That night, riot police were stationed far away, so police officers on the scene did little to quell the looting. Other protesters ultimately guarded doors to keep people away.

That resulted in Nixon declaring a midnight curfew in Ferguson Saturday. As midnight approached Saturday, Johnson looked physically tired. During the day he had clashed with local officials over his decision to de-escalate the police response Friday night. Some police have argued internally that the decision led to more looting early Saturday morning. 

The meeting was so intense that it ended in tears and hugs among senior police commanders, Johnson said. So for Johnson, desperate to maintain order without reverting to clench-fisted police power, the sight of protesters refusing to disperse as the curfew approached Saturday night was heartbreaking. “I have a heavy heart tonight,” he said.

In a gripping scene, as Black Panther leaders with bullhorns pleaded with protesters, “Black man, go home,” one young black man, a black bandanna covering his face, confronted Johnson inside the media area.

Johnson stopped his entourage and faced the man, and the two exchanged words. “Why isn’t the cop in jail?” the man, shaking with rage, said of Brown's shooter.

“I can’t give you all the answers you want, but there were 40 FBI agents walking through this neighborhood today,” Johnson said. “They’re going to give you the answers.”

The exchange captured the essence of the protesters’ anger and attempts by officials to allow free speech while safeguarding businesses. A grand jury could “within days” hear testimony as to whether the officer, Darren Wilson, committed a crime when he shot Brown, said St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch. The FBI is carrying out a parallel investigation to determine if Mr. Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights.

The weeklong series of clashes have roiled St. Louis and worried a nation that remains segregated in many areas. But it has also exposed a seam of racial frustration that rarely surfaces in this transforming river city and manufacturing center, where white flight from dozens of municipalities circling St. Louis has created a strange juxtaposition of a white power structure – nearly all local police are white – in towns that are largely black.

The anger was palpable Saturday night as the curfew approached. The protesters’ message is simple: Arrest Wilson, the police officer who witnesses claim shot Brown to death even after he raised his arms in surrender. Those who have refused pleas from senior black leaders and clergy to step down have said they won’t because “Mike Brown is our leader.”

Wilson, police say, stopped Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, for jaywalking on Canfield Road but then saw a box of cigars in Brown’s hand that could have been tied to the burglary moments before. A struggle ensued, police say Wilson was hit in the face, and a shot was fired, followed by as many as seven or eight more.

Witnesses say Brown was struck twice, then turned to plead with the officer to stop shooting. He did not, witnesses have said, and "Big Mike" fell.

Saturday night, as the minutes ticked away after midnight struck, thunder rolled and rain fell. Police radios crackled: “We’ve got 150 people moving this way.” The police, who had shed most of the militaristic gear that defined the early days of the protests, first fell back to their position on West Florissant Avenue, and then regrouped behind two large armored vehicles.

A group of protesters in the middle distance shouted, “No Justice, no Curfew!” and “We have the right to peacefully assemble.”

“You are violating the state curfew,” an officer said through a speaker. “You must disperse immediately. Failure to comply may result in arrest or other actions.”

In contrast to more aggressive actions in the first half of the eight-day standoff, police inched forward, managing to disperse the crowd with smoke grenades, only to have the protesters reassemble farther down West Florissant. Finally, smoke, lights, and the discharge of anti-riot sound shocks were heard in the distance. Some protesters said they were pelted with rubber bullets.

Nixon said Sunday that he was "hopeful that we're making progress."

"People need to grieve and they need to speak, but we also need to keep the rule of law and peace, and I think we need to balance all three of those," he said.

The curfew will be in effect again Sunday.

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