Unrest returned to the streets of this St. Louis suburb early Saturday as hundreds of demonstrators, angered by the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager by a police officer, engaged in a standoff with the police that was punctuated by threats and a new round of denunciations of law enforcement practices.
The confrontation, the first serious one since the Missouri State Highway Patrol on Thursday assumed responsibility for security operations here, ended about 4 a.m. when the authorities, prompted by the gradual dispersal of demonstrators, pulled back to their nearby command post. The Associated Press reported that one law enforcement official had been injured overnight.
The unrest, coming after a day of relative calm, resumed after the Ferguson police on Friday released the name of the officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown as well as surveillance video that appeared to show Brown stealing a box of cigarillos in a convenience store. His family and many protesters complained that the police were trying to divert attention from the central question: why an unarmed young man was shot dead.
A U.S. law enforcement official said Saturday that the Justice Department had “opposed the release of the robbery video.”
The Ferguson police had wanted to release the video Thursday, the official said, but the Justice Department asked them not to because of concerns “it would roil the community further.”
The release of the video Friday “occurred over the objection of federal authorities,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe discussions between a federal agency and a local police force.
The official said that a copy of the video had been in possession of federal investigators as well, and that “there were never any plans by the federal investigators to release that copy.”
On Saturday morning, business owners assessed the damage from looting that took place overnight and volunteers helped clean the area. Law enforcement officials were trying to find the right balance in allowing residents to protest and keeping the community safe, the state attorney general, Chris Koster, said after visiting one of the looted stores.
“At this hour, it’s the business owners who are out here,” he said, “and they’re concerned that they didn’t have enough protection in their eyes last night.”
The unrest early Saturday capped a day marked by contradictory police accounts of the shooting and the spectacle of dueling news conferences by clearly divided authorities.
On Friday, the police chief of Ferguson, Thomas Jackson, said at a news conference that the officer who shot Brown was Darren Wilson, who has served on the Ferguson force for four years and in another local department for two years and who had no disciplinary charges. Wilson, who is white, has been placed on leave, and his location is unknown.
Jackson also said that Brown was a suspect in the convenience store robbery and released the videotape images. The police also released a report on the robbery that said “it is worth mentioning that this incident is related to” the shooting of Brown.
The Highway Patrol officer named to take over security in Ferguson, Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, at a separate appearance expressed his displeasure with the release of the video. Johnson, who grew up in the area, had been brought in by Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday to restore peace after days of confrontations between demonstrators and the police in riot gear and military-style vehicles. The captain said he had not been told that the authorities planned to release the video of the robbery along with the name of the officer. But he sought to calm people down, saying, “In our anger, we have to make sure that we don’t burn down our own house.”
At a later news conference, on Friday afternoon, Jackson appeared to reverse himself and said that Wilson had not been aware that Brown “was a suspect in the case” and instead had stopped him and a companion “because they were walking down the street blocking traffic.”
Protests on the streets Friday night started peacefully. Cars clogged streets as horns blared and music played. Hundreds of demonstrators clutched signs and chanted slogans, but many others danced to music. On one street, six people danced atop a delivery truck.
Although the police presence was limited, Johnson walked through the crowds, taking photographs with children and offering hugs and handshakes.
“I’m pleased with how it’s going,” he said early in the night.
But tensions rose around midnight when the police released a small amount of tear gas as they backed away from the crowd. Some protesters threw rocks and other objects, according to media reports. Some demonstrators fired weapons into the air.
Johnson told The Associated Press that the police backed off to try to ease the tension.
“We had to evaluate the security of the officers there and also the rioters,” he told The AP. “We just felt it was better to move back.”
Using people and vehicles, protesters quickly blocked a major thoroughfare here, prompting the police to return and form a barricade of their own. For a time, the protesters and the police faced off in the road. The police urged protesters to go home, and demonstrators, many of them chanting slogans like “We ready for y’all,” approached the officers. Some tossed glass bottles toward the police.
One protester sought to rally others to action through a megaphone, telling them, “You say you’re ready to jam? Let’s jam.”
A police officer repeatedly urged the demonstrators to leave the roadway and avoid coming too close to the police. The official, speaking through an intercom system, warned violators were “subject to arrest and other actions,” and a police helicopter, its spotlight shining, flew over this city of about 21,000.
At times the police warned, “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Several protesters, as rain occasionally fell, tried to persuade others to stick with their cause amid the warnings.
“It’s going to be a long war,” one young man said to another. “We need to win a few battles.”
As protesters lingered, some stores became targets for looting. Men and women could be seen racing through the aisles of a liquor store and running out with bottles of alcohol. The police took no action to protect the store or apprehend any suspects.
“When we start looting, breaking into stores, throwing bottles and rocks, that’s not what this protest is about,” Johnson told a local television station, KMOV. “This behavior we saw tonight is riot-type behavior.”
But Johnson said that officials had been worried they would see that kind of reaction on the street Friday night.
“I will say we talked all day about the release of the videotape at the food mart,” Johnson told KMOV. “We had concerns that this would happen.”
Many other retailers, though, were left untouched, in part because some demonstrators blocked entrances and windows in a bid to limit looting. Such conduct, they said, diluted the seriousness of the message they were trying to send to the police and the public.
By 4 a.m. the crowd had mostly broken up, and the police returned to their command post.
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