Ferguson, Reuters—Police fired tear gas and protesters set businesses ablaze in Ferguson, Missouri, in racially charged unrest sparked by a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager in August.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said early on Tuesday that at least a dozen buildings were torched and that he counted about 150 gunshots during a night of looting, vandalism, arson and clashes between demonstrators and police that resulted in at least 29 arrests.
Flights over the area were restricted and police struggled to contain protesters who took to the streets of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, smashing shop windows and torching cars and businesses despite President Barack Obama’s calls for restraint.
Although no serious injuries were reported, Belmar said the rioting on Monday night and early Tuesday morning was “much worse” than disturbances which erupted in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9.
Protests were also staged on Monday night in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Oakland, California, and Washington, DC, over a case that has highlighted longstanding racial tensions not just in predominantly black Ferguson but across the United States.
“Murderers, you’re nothing but murderers,” one woman shouted through a megaphone at officers clad in riot gear in Ferguson, after the grand jury decision was announced.
Angry crowds gathered around the police department in Ferguson after the grand jury found there was no probable cause to charge Wilson with any crime in the shooting.
St. Louis police reported heavy gunfire late on Monday in the area near where Brown was slain, but Belmar said officers did not fire a shot, even after they were pelted with rocks, bottles, batteries and other debris.
Police did fire volleys of tear gas and flash-bang canisters.
Wilson could have faced charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder, and Brown’s family said through their lawyers that they were “profoundly disappointed” by the grand jury’s finding.
“While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change,” the family said in a statement.
Attorneys for Wilson, who was placed on administrative leave and has avoided the spotlight since the shooting, said he was following his training and the law when he shot Brown.
“We recognize that many people will want to second-guess the grand jury’s decision. We would encourage anyone who wants to express an opinion do so in a respectful and peaceful manner,” the statement said.
As unrest flared following the announcement of the decision, Obama called for protesters to remain peaceful and for police to show restraint.
“We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation,” the president told a televised news conference. “In too many parts of this country a deep distrust exists between police and communities of color.”
As protests escalated in Ferguson, a group mobbed a police car, throwing rocks and knocking out its windows, prompting a group of officers in riot gear to advance. Sounds of gunshots briefly caused police to take cover behind their vehicles.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called up the National Guard ahead of the ruling to protect against the kind of rioting that erupted in the weeks after Brown was shot and killed.
Some activists criticized the preemptive deployment as unnecessarily heavy-handed, particularly following complaints that police inflamed crowds in August by responding with tear gas and rubber bullets.
But Belmar said thousands of officers would have been needed to contain the unrest that swept the Midwestern town on Monday night.
Separate probe ongoing
The grand jury of nine whites and three blacks began meeting in late August and heard testimony from 60 witnesses called by the prosecution, including medical examiners who performed three autopsies, one by a private pathologist hired by Brown’s family.
“They determined that no probable cause exists to file any charge against officer Wilson,” St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch told reporters in announcing the outcome.
McCulloch declined to say if the jury’s decision was unanimous. At least nine jurors would have needed to agree to indict in order for Wilson to be charged.
A separate federal probe into the shooting is continuing, and US Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized that the Justice Department investigators had not reached any conclusions.
McCulloch described a tangled mass of conflicting testimony from 60 witnesses about what happened during the incident that led to Brown’s death, but said much of it did not square with the physical evidence.
Lawyers for Brown’s family say the teen was trying to surrender when he was shot, while Wilson’s supporters say the officer feared for his life and opened fire in self-defense.
Witnesses disagreed on whether Brown’s hands were up at the time he was shot, McCulloch said, adding that Wilson shot at Brown 12 times. The final shot hit Brown in the top of his head.
Brown is suspected of having stolen cigars from a nearby convenience store shortly before the incident. Police said in August that Wilson was not aware of the robbery at the time.