Doves of peace give way to gunfire on anniversary of Michael Brown's death

What started as a day of nonviolent demonstrations to commemorate one year since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., turned ugly in the face of looting and gunfire. 

Rick Wilking/Reuters
A protester yells at a police line shortly before shots were fired in a police-officer involved shooting in Ferguson, Mo., on Sunday. Two people were shot in the midst of a late-night confrontation between riot police and protesters, after a day of peaceful events commemorating the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white officer one year ago.

A peaceful day of protests in Ferguson, Mo., to mark the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death turned violent Sunday evening when officers shot back at a man who opened fire on police.

Officers had been tracking the man, whom they believed was armed, during a demonstration commemorating the death of Mr. Brown, the black, unarmed teenager whose killing by a white Ferguson police officer last year fueled the "Black Lives Matter" movement and sparked a national debate about race and justice.

Sunday’s gunfire began when rival groups of agitators started shooting at each other on the west side of West Florissant Avenue, which bore the brunt of the Ferguson protests last summer. One man approached the officers, who were in an unmarked police van, and opened fire, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said at a news conference early Monday. The suspect was badly wounded in the ensuing foot chase and exchange of gunshots with the four officers.

The man has since been hospitalized in critical, unstable condition, and was undergoing surgery, Chief Belmar said.

"These were criminals, they weren't protesters," he said of the shooters. "There is a small group of people out there that are intent on making sure that we don't have peace that prevails.”

The day had started quietly enough. Activists from across the country came to the St. Louis suburb to push for changes in police treatment of the black community. Hundreds gathered in a vigil to remember Brown, and white doves were released after four and a half minutes of silence, which represented the roughly four and a half hours that Brown’s body lay in the street after he was shot.

Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., led a silent march through town that started at the site where Brown was fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson. A grand jury and the US Department of Justice declined to prosecute Wilson, who resigned in November.

Later, a few hundred people turned out at Greater St. Mark Family Church in St. Louis for a service to remember Brown, with his father joining other relatives sitting behind the pulpit.

The mood changed dramatically after dark. Dozens of protesters converged on West Florissant Avenue, chanting "Shut it down" in the midst of a thunderstorm. Police in riot gear moved in to disperse the demonstrators, who began throwing water bottles and shouting, “We’re ready for what? We are ready for war!” CNN reported.

Both sides held their ground while clergy members and activists circulated between the two sides, appealing for calm.

The standoff ended when bursts of gunfire sent police crouching behind their patrol cars and demonstrators rushing for cover. Paul Hampel, a reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said he had been assaulted and robbed after he posted on Twitter that people were breaking into the stores.

One officer was later treated for cuts after a rock or a brick was thrown at his face, and two officers were pepper sprayed by protesters, reports say. Five people were arrested, according to records released to the Associated Press by county police spokesman Officer Shawn McGuire.

“It’s sad and disappointing,” Antonio French, an alderman in St. Louis, told The New York Times in describing the evening’s events. “You have some people here who use the cover of this anniversary to commit some violent acts. To see violence happen on this day in this city is really disappointing.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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