FERGUSON, Missouri: A man was critically wounded in a gun battle with police as street protests turned violent in Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday night, marring a day of peaceful rallies to mark the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer one year ago. The death of Brown and a grand jury’s decision to spare the officer, Darren Wilson, from criminal charges sparked a prolonged wave of demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb last year that boiled over into rioting and arson at times and spawned sympathy rallies across the country.
Brown’s death also led to greater scrutiny of racial bias within the US criminal justice system, giving rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement that gained momentum from other high-profile slayings of unarmed minorities by white police in cities such as New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Cincinnati and most recently Arlington, Texas.
On Sunday night in Ferguson, several volleys of gunshots rang out as police in riot gear tried to disperse demonstrators blocking traffic and smashing storefront windows along a street that was a flashpoint of last year’s unrest after Michael Brown, 18, was slain. Police later said the gunfire began with two groups of agitators apparently shooting at each other before one gunman darted across a parking lot and was confronted by four officers who pulled up in an unmarked vehicle. The suspect then opened fire on the police vehicle and was badly wounded in the ensuing foot chase and exchange of gunshots with the four detectives, police said.
St Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the unidentified man, believed to be in his mid-20s, was hospitalized in critical and unstable condition. Speaking to reporters at a predawn news conference yesterday, Belmar estimated that more than 40 rounds had been unleashed. The shooters “were criminals; they weren’t protesters,” he said. “There is a small group of people out there that are intent on making sure that we don’t have peace that prevails.”
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch condemned the violence. “As we have seen over the recent months and years, not only does violence obscure any message of peaceful protest, it places the community, as well as the officers who seek to protect it, in harm’s way,” Lynch said in prepared remarks to the Fraternal Order of Police. In March, the Justice Department released a report that said systemic racial bias targeted blacks and created a “toxic environment” in Ferguson.
At least three officers were injured in Sunday’s melee. One was struck in the face with a brick hurled from the crowd and two others pepper-sprayed by protesters, Belmar said. A local news media member was also robbed and assaulted in a nearby parking lot amid the turmoil, during which police reported making five arrests. Separately, two teenage males were shot early yesterday in a drive-by attack near a sidewalk shrine erected in Brown’s memory beside the spot where he was killed, but their wounds were not considered life-threatening, police said.
Gunfire and Bloodshed
The unrest was in marked contrast to a day of mostly subdued, peaceful commemorations in Ferguson and elsewhere. White doves were released after 4-1/2 minutes of silence to represent the roughly 4-1/2 hours that Brown’s body lay in the middle of the street after he was shot. A crowd of about 1,000 then embarked on a silent march through Ferguson to honor Brown and others killed in confrontations with police.
The scene changed dramatically after dark. Dozens of protesters converged on West Florissant Avenue, which bore the brunt of last summer’s rioting, and chanted: “Shut it down” in the midst of a severe thunderstorm. A phalanx of helmeted police wearing body armor and carrying shields moved in. Protesters briefly fell away before regrouping to confront the line of officers, who ordered them to disperse. The protesters, locking arms and edging closer to the police cordon, began throwing water bottles and shouting: “We are ready for war!” Both sides held their ground while clergy members and activists appealed for calm.
Bursts of gunfire shattered the face-off, sending police crouching behind their patrol cars and demonstrators scurrying for cover. Helicopters whirred overhead as additional police armed with assault rifles swarmed the area, some roaring down the street in armored vehicles in the direction of the gunfire. Merchants, some armed, stood guard outside their businesses early yesterday after the disturbances, which unfolded around the corner from where Wilson shot Brown on Aug 9, 2014.
A federal review of Brown’s slaying found that Wilson had acted lawfully. The Justice Department, however, also found a pattern of excessive police force against unarmed black citizens. The city’s police chief, city manager and municipal court judge all subsequently left their jobs. – Reuters