Peaceful protests gave way to violence in the St. Louis suburb after the grand jury didn't charge Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown
The calls, overwhelmingly, were for peace. But the result was anything but.
A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, after an encounter in the St. Louis suburb on Aug. 9. The decision, announced Monday evening, means Wilson will not face criminal charges in a case that ignited a national debate about race, privilege and policing in America.
The announcement immediately revived the frustration of protesters who filled the streets of Ferguson for weeks this summer, leading to a renewed wave of clashes with riot gear-clad police. As the news spread, demonstrators blocked the street in front of the Ferguson Police Department, chanting obscenities and throwing objects at officers.
As the night wore on, the demonstrations erupted into violence. In an echo of the worst of the earlier unrest, businesses were set on fire and looted and law enforcement fired smoke bombs and tear gas in an attempt to disperse the angry crowds. The sting from the chemical hung in the air for blocks, and the sidewalks and parking lots near the Ferguson Police Department were filled with people washing out burning eyes and vomiting in gutters.
It was precisely the response many feared but never wanted. The days leading up to the decision were a drumbeat of pleas for peace, with clergy, local residents and even President Obama urging crowds to channel their anger into something more productive. The Brown family echoed those calls in a statement after the decision. "We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions,” the statement said. "While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you 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.”
Protests spread to cities across the U.S. late Monday, with thousands rallying in cities from New York to Los Angeles. Demonstrators in Oakland, Calif. flowed onto the westbound lanes of Interstate 580, temporarily blocking traffic, but the majority of protests outside of the St. Louis area remained mostly peaceful.
Speaking from the White House about an hour after Wilson’s fate was made public, the President said he hoped the incident could force the nation to address the larger sense of mistrust between African-Americans and police.
"We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to the broader challenges we still face as a nation,” he said. "In too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.”
Obama, too, called for a peaceful response, yet as he spoke television news networks aired split-screen footage of police deploying tear gas and smoke grenades at demonstrators.
The President’s wishes went unheeded, at least in the immediate aftermath. That the grand jury’s decision was revealed after dark surely didn’t help.
In a lengthy news conference announcing the grand jury’s decision, St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch painstakingly described the events leading up to Brown’s death. The grand jury, he said, heard contradictory testimony from eyewitnesses, some of whom changed their stories to reflect the evidence. He later released thousands of pages of documents reviewed by the grand jury including photos of Wilson taken at a hospital after the shooting that appear to show bruising to his neck and face.
"As tragic as this is, it was a not a crime,” McCulloch said.