U.S. Police Come Under Gunfire, Arrest 31 In Missouri Racial Unrest
FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - U.S. police said early on Tuesday they came under heavy gunfire and arrested 31 people during another night of racially charged protests in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked by the fatal shooting of an UNARMED BLACK TEENAGER by a white policeman 10 days ago.
Demonstrations, mostly peaceful but with spasms of violence by smaller groups, have flared since Michael Brown, 18, was shot dead while walking down a residential street on August 9th.
State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, briefing reporters on Monday's night's violence, said "our officers came under heavy gunfire" in one area.
"Not a single bullet was fired by officers despite coming under heavy attack," he told a news conference. Riot police had confiscated two guns from protesters and what looked like a petrol bomb. Four officers had been injured.
Johnson separately told CNN that two people were shot within the crowd, but not by police, and were taken to hospital. There was no immediate word on their condition.
The violence has captured headlines around the world, raising questions about the state of U.S. race relations nearly six years after Americans elected their first black president.
"This has to stop. I don't want anybody to get hurt. We have to find a way to stop this," said Johnson, an African-American who grew up in the area and who took over security efforts after the mostly white local force was accused of using excessive force against blacks.
An overnight curfew has been imposed and the National Guard, the U.S. state militia, has been deployed in the St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people to stop looting and burning that have punctuated the protests.
President Barack Obama and civil rights leaders have appealed for calm while a federal investigation into the shooting proceeds.
"While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving in to that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos," Obama told a news conference on Monday.
"It undermines, rather than advancing, justice."
Monday night's clashes between riot police and protesters followed hours of mostly peaceful demonstrations, Reuters witnesses said.
Police had closed a roadway to traffic to provide a path for marches but said a smaller group within the larger crowd hurled bottles, rocks and petrol bombs at officers standing near armored vehicles. Police responded by firing gas-filled canisters and a noise cannon to try to disperse the throng.
Some demonstrators, including a church minister using a blow horn, urged crowds to calm down.
There have been largely peaceful protests over Brown's killing elsewhere in the United States including in St. Louis, New York, Seattle and Oakland. Police commander Johnson said some of those arrested had come from California and New York.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson on Saturday and a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. He also mobilized the National Guard to back up state police.
Obama said he told the governor the use of the National Guard should be limited and called for conciliation in communities hit by the unrest. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will visit Ferguson on Wednesday, Obama said.
Holder said over 40 FBI agents were canvassing Ferguson neighborhoods in their investigation and an additional medical examination was being performed on Brown. Results of autopsies done by federal and St. Louis County authorities were pending.
Brown was shot by white policeman Darren Wilson, 28, who is now on paid leave, in hiding and under criminal investigation.
Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head, and may have been lowering his head in surrender when the fatal shot struck, according to Brown family attorney Daryl Parks. There were no signs of struggle with the officer and no gunshot residue on the body.
Ferguson police quoted Wilson as saying he had asked Brown and a friend to move off the street where they were walking, and onto the sidewalk. Wilson reported that Brown reached into his patrol car and struggled for his gun.
St. Louis County prosecutors' spokesman Edward Magee said the case could be presented this week to an investigating grand jury which would decide whether Wilson will be indicted.
Ferguson has seen a stark demographic shift in recent decades, going from all white to mostly black. Out of a police force of 53, three officers are black.
Many Ferguson residents say Brown's killing was emblematic of police excesses against blacks, a charge authorities deny.
Brown's friend Dorian Johnson, 22, said Wilson had reached out of his car window to grab Brown and the teenager tried to get away. Johnson said Brown held up his hands to surrender but Wilson got out of his car and shot him several times.
The National Bar Association, containing the largest network of black attorneys and judges, filed a lawsuit on Monday against Ferguson and its police department, demanding it protect evidence of the shooting and arrests made during protests.
Looting has left a number of Ferguson stores in shambles. Two fires were set on Monday evening, one at a business and one at an unoccupied home, Johnson said.
The disturbances are the worst of their kind for more than a year. In July 2013, there were angry, albeit peaceful, protests in cities across the United States over the acquittal in a Florida second-degree murder and manslaughter trial of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, who shot dead an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in the street during a scuffle in February 2012. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a federal autopsy of a teenager shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, seeking to assure the family and community there will be a thorough investigation into a death that has sparked days of racially charged protests.
Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. The police department in the St. Louis suburb has come under strong criticism for both the death of an unarmed man and its handling of the aftermath.
Seven protesters were arrested early on Sunday after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon imposed an overnight curfew aimed at quelling protests and looting. Police used canisters of smoke and later teargas to disperse the crowd, a Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman said.
Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, entrusted by the governor with restoring order, told hundreds of people gathered at a local church for a rally that he was committed to protecting their right to protest.
"I'm sorry," Johnson, who is black, told Brown's family during remarks that prompted repeated standing ovations. "My heart is heavy."
The rally was led by civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
Holder called for the federal autopsy, in addition to one being conducted by state medical examiners, "due to the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family," Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said.
The family is also planning to have a pathologist conduct an independent examination of the body, a family spokesman said.
The early morning clash occurred when demonstrators remained in the streets after the curfew took effect at midnight. The seven people arrested had failed to disperse, police said.
A person was shot and critically wounded during the night. It was not clear why, and the shooter was still at large, police said. Johnson said police were unable to identify the victim, who he said was not shot by police.
Johnson also said someone had shot at a passing police car but was not apprehended.
The smoke and teargas canisters largely dispersed the crowd.
"It was the minimum amount of force that we could have used to get them moving," said Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman Al Nothum. He said on Sunday the patrol did not know if the curfew would be extended for a second night.
Nixon said that in spite of the clashes, the curfew was a success and the community deserved credit. Speaking on
CNN's news show "State of the Union," the governor said he did not know how long the curfew would be in place.
He criticized the Ferguson police department for its decision on Friday to release a video that allegedly showed Brown taking part in a convenience store robbery shortly before the shooting. Police have said the officer who shot Brown had no idea he was a robbery suspect.
"I think it had an incendiary effect," Nixon said on CBS' "Face the Nation." Police "clearly are attempting to besmirch a victim of a shooting," he added.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson defended the release of the surveillance video, over the objections of the U.S. Justice Department. Jackson said he was complying with the news media's requests for information in the case.
The decision to release the video while not giving details of the shooting only fueled outrage. The clashes in Ferguson have pitted mostly black protesters against mostly white police in a residential and retail district.
OBAMA GETTING REGULAR BRIEFINGS
President Barack Obama has been getting regular briefings while on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, including from senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Jarrett spoke with Nixon on Saturday to get an update and offer the administration's continued coordination and support with state and local officials, a White House spokesman said. Jarrett had also been in touch with civil rights leaders, including Sharpton and NAACP President Cornell Brooks over the last few days, he said.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the St. Louis County Police department are investigating Brown's death, which has been described differently by the police and by a friend who was walking with him at the time.
Police say that after Wilson asked Brown to move out of the road onto a sidewalk, Brown reached into the patrol car and struggled with Wilson for the officer's service gun. Wilson, who sustained a facial injury, then shot Brown a number of times.
The friend, Dorian Johnson, 22, and at least one other witness have said the officer reached out through his car window to grab at Brown and the teenager was trying to get away from the officer when he was shot. Brown held up his hands in a sign of surrender but the officer got out of his patrol car and shot Brown several times, they said.
In Los Angeles on Sunday, civil rights activists and supporters of the family of another young black man shot dead by police, Ezell Ford, planned to rally outside LAPD headquarters. The family of the 25-year-old said he was complying with officers and lying down when he was shot, and that he has mental challenges. The LAPD says he struggled with officers and was going for one of their guns when he was killed.
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