Angry crowds poured into the streets of Ferguson within minutes of news that a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the death an unarmed, black 18-year-old, whose fatal shooting sparked weeks of demonstrations and exposed deep racial tension between African-Americans and police.
President Barack Obama and the family of Michael Brown asked for calm after St. Louis County's top prosecutor announced the grand jury's decision Monday evening. As Obama spoke live from the White House briefing room, television networks showed Obama on one side of the screen, and violent demonstrations in Ferguson on the other.
Protesters overran a barricade and taunted police. Some chanted "murderer" and others threw rocks, shattered windows and vandalized cars. Several gunshots were also heard. Officers in armoured vehicles lobbed canisters of irritants that made protesters' eyes and lungs burn.
Officer Darren Wilson's fatal shooting of Brown during an Aug. 9 confrontation sparked a fierce debate over how police treat young African-American men and focused attention on long-simmering racial tensions in Ferguson and around the U.S., four decades after the 1960s civil rights movement. Police were criticized for responding to mostly peaceful protests with armoured vehicles and tear gas.
What witnesses say: Mr. Brown's friend Dorian Johnson was with him at the time of the shooting. He has said in media interviews that he and Mr. Brown were walking on the street, en route to Mr. Johnson's house, when an officer drove up and told them to get off the sidewalk. The two stayed in the street, and the officer backed up his car and hit Mr. Brown while opening the door. The officer grabbed Mr. Brown, pulled his gun and fired, delivering more fatal shots when the two fled the car.
What police say: In August, St. Louis County police said one of the two men shoved the officer into the car and assaulted him. According to Mr. Wilson's account of events, he fought Brown from inside his police SUV, where Mr. Brown tried to grab the officer's gun and an initial gunshot was fired. Mr. Wilson says Mr. Brown fled the vehicle, then turned around in a threatening manner, prompting the officer to shoot him.
What the autopsies say: A private autopsy, conducted for the Brown family in August, found Mr. Brown had been shot at least six times and that his head was "in a downward position" when he died. On Oct. 22, the report of the St. Louis County autopsy of Mr. Brown was leaked to the media. It suggested Mr. Brown had a gunshot wound to the hand from close range.
Obama said Monday night from the White House that Americans need to accept the grand jury's decision.
"We are a nation built on the rule of law, so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury's to make," Obama said. He said it was understandable that some Americans would be "deeply disappointed — even angered," but echoed Brown's parents in calling for any protests to be peaceful.
Police departments in several big U.S. cities said they were bracing for large demonstrations with the potential for violence. Thousands of people protested from Los Angeles to New York, leading marches, waving signs and shouting chants of "Hands Up! Don't Shoot," the slogan that has become a rallying cry in protests over police killings across the country.
As St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch was reading his statement, a crowd gathered around a car from which it was being broadcast on a stereo. When the decision was announced, Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, who was sitting atop the car, burst into tears and began screaming before being whisked away by supporters.
The crowd erupted in anger, converging on the barricade where police in riot gear were standing. They pushed down the barricade and began pelting police with items, including a bullhorn.
The windows of a police car were smashed and protesters tried to topple it before it was set on fire. Police later confirmed they used tear gas in response.
Some in the crowd reportedly tried to stop others from taking part in the violence.
Outside the Ferguson Police Department, St. Louis County police used a bullhorn to order a crowd to disperse, saying it had become an unlawful assembly. Protesters defied the orders and some chanted "murderer." Minutes later, four gunshots were heard down the street.
Brown's family released a statement saying they were "profoundly disappointed" in the decision but asked that the public "channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen."
A grand jury of nine white and three black members had met weekly since Aug. 20 to consider evidence, hearing from 60 witnesses. The panel met in secret, a standard practice for such proceedings.
Brown's shooting inflamed tensions in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb that is patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police force.
Protests continued for weeks — often peacefully, but sometimes turning violent, with demonstrators throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails and police firing smoke canisters, tear gas and rubber bullets. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to briefly summon the National Guard.
The Ferguson protests recalled other racially charged cases, from the riots that rocked Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of white police officers in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King to peaceful protests after the 2013 not-guilty verdict in the Florida slaying in unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was not a police officer but co-ordinated the local neighbourhood watch.
McCulloch stressed that the grand jurors were "the only people who heard every witness ... and every piece of evidence." He said many witness presented conflicting statements that ultimately were inconsistent with the physical evidence.
McCulloch, speaking for nearly 45 minutes, was critical of the media, saying "the most significant challenge" for his office was a "24-hour news cycle and an insatiable appetite for something — for anything — to talk about."
Obama, who has faced repeated calls to visit Ferguson, said he would "take a look" at whether such a visit would now be wise.
Under Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, the Justice Department is conducting a separate investigation into possible civil rights violations that could result in federal charges against Wilson. The department also has launched a broad probe into the Ferguson Police Department, looking for patterns of discrimination.
While a grand jury could consider multiple charges, Justice Department lawyers face a difficult burden to meet: that Wilson wilfully deprived Brown of his civil rights. That is a high bar especially considering the wide latitude given to police officers in using deadly force.
Obama, the first black president, sought to dispel the notion that race relations in the U.S. have deteriorated. Urging Americans not to deny recent progress, he called for attention on ways to unite police and their communities in the wake of Brown's death.
"That won't be done by throwing bottles. That won't be done by smashing car windows. That won't be done by using this as an excuse to vandalize property," Obama said. "It certainly won't be done by hurting anybody."
With files from Globe staff