The family of Michael Brown, and others who have criticized police actions in Ferguson, Mo., made a strong show of solidarity with local police, after two officers were nearly killed by gunfire early Thursday morning outside the Ferguson Police Department.
As officers hunted two suspects, one of whom could be the shooter, about 50 protesters held a vigil on behalf of the injured lawmen.
Notably, the parents of Mr. Brown, whose death last year sparked a wide-ranging national debate about the extent of racial bias in how police dispatch deadly force, warned that violence against law enforcement “cannot and will not be tolerated.”
While a variety of activist groups have taken part in protests following the Aug. 9 death of Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, spokesmen for core groups of protesters denounced the violence aimed at police.
There’s "no way [that the shooting suspects are] representative of the thousands of people ... who have been protesting," said Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman.
Undeniably, tensions between police and the community were ratcheted up by Thursday's shootings, and some conservative websites highlighted Twitter commentary celebrating the fact that officers were injured. The shootings came just after the protesters achieved one of their goals: the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, news of which sparked a raucous rally that had begun to wind down when shots rang out.
Yet as a manhunt for the shooter entered a second day, the overall response from a stressed-out city seeking institutional reform and racial reconciliation mirrored comments by President Obama, who said police officers are doing a “terrifically tough job” in managing at-times rowdy protests while letting people exercise their First Amendment rights.
The shootings came after the release of a damning Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department, detailing ways that racial bias underpinned a regressive policy of using police officers as municipal revenue collectors, with black people bearing the brunt of the financial and personal costs. The report was issued at the same time the Justice Department said it had no cause to bring civil rights charges against former officer Darren Wilson, because the evidence showed Mr. Wilson shot Brown in legitimate self-defense, not out of personal bias or animus.
Attorney General Eric Holder has been personally involved in the investigation into discriminatory practices at the police department, and he lashed out at the shooter on Thursday, calling him or her a “punk” who was “trying to sow discord in an area that was trying to get its act together, trying to bring together a community that had been fractured for too long.”
Yet critics argue that the federal focus on Ferguson may also have exacerbated the situation.
Given the personal involvement in Ferguson by Mr. Holder, America’s top law enforcement official, and Mr. Obama, who has not visited Ferguson but spoke about it publicly, the debate has become polarizing to a dangerous point, says Linda Chavez, a syndicated columnist.
“No, [Holder] didn’t intend for someone to try to kill two police officers,” Ms. Chavez writes. “But by portraying the police department as racist to the core, he contributed to the culture of vengeance that led to the shooting.”
So far, the names or affiliations of the shooter are not known. Brown’s family called the shootings the work of “outside agitators.”
The protests Wednesday night were in part a celebration of the resignation of Mr. Jackson, the public face of the embattled department. Protesters also say they want the resignation of James Knowles, Ferguson’s elected mayor. Even with the resignation of six top officials, leaders in Ferguson have struggled to convince protesters that the city can effectively root out institutional racism.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday, several shots rang out and two officers went down. Both sustained serious, but not life-threatening, injuries. Both were released from the hospital on Thursday.
For police, the shootings have highlighted the depth to which the mostly black Ferguson community and a mostly white police force remain on edge. A sense of looming violence has dogged the seven months following Brown’s death, police say. “I want everybody to understand how difficult this is,” added St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar.
But concern among protesters for the safety of police officers also remained palpable. “Nobody’s happy about this day,” Bob Hudgins, a protester running for City Council, told The New York Times.
Obama weighed in on the shootings Thursday night during his appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” telling Mr. Kimmel that the perpetrators are “criminals” and should be treated as such.
"They need to be arrested, and then what we need to do is to make sure that like-minded, good-spirited people on both sides – law enforcement who have a terrifically tough job and people who understandably don't want to be harassed just because of their race – that we're able to work together to come up with some good answers,” he said.
In a personally composed tweet posted earlier Thursday, Obama wrote: “Path to justice is one all of us must travel together."