FERGUSON, Mo. — Smoke billowed from burned-out buildings and sidewalks were strewn with broken glass Tuesday after Ferguson erupted over a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the killing of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Firefighters were dousing the blackened remains of some Ferguson businesses and at least one was still ablaze Tuesday morning. Some stores that escaped fire had their display windows smashed, but the St. Louis suburb’s streets were mostly clear.
Monday night’s protests were far more destructive than any of those that followed Brown’s Aug. 9 death, with more than a dozen businesses badly damaged or destroyed. Authorities reported hearing hundreds of gunshots, which for a time prevented fire crews from fighting the flames.
Photo gallery: Fire and fury in the way of the Ferguson ruling
There were 61 arrests in Ferguson overnight, many for burglary and trespassing, St. Louis County Police spokesman Brian Schellman said. There were 21 arrests in St. Louis, where protesters broke some store windows along South Grand Avenue, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said.
Gov. Jay Nixon issued a statement saying he was calling in more National Guard troops to assist law enforcement in Ferguson, but he didn’t say how many additional troops or how long they would remain.
Jon Belmar, chief of the St. Louis County police, said that unless his agency could bring in 10,000 officers, “I don’t think we can prevent folks who really are intent on destroying a community.”
At least 14 people were injured and sought treatment at area hospitals. Two people were admitted to Barnes-Jewish Hospital for undisclosed injuries, and the others were treated and released.
Meanwhile, many area districts cancelled classes out of concern for the safety of students travelling to and from school.
The grand jury’s decision means that Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, will not face any state criminal charges for killing Brown, whose death inflamed deep racial tensions between many black Americans and police.
Wilson’s lawyers issued a statement praising the decision and saying the officer, who has remained out of the public eye since the shooting, is grateful to his supporters.
“Law enforcement personnel must frequently make split-second and difficult decisions,” the lawyers wrote. “Officer Wilson followed his training and followed the law.”
Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said the jury of nine whites and three blacks met on 25 separate days over three months, hearing more than 70 hours of testimony from about 60 witnesses, including three medical examiners and experts on blood, toxicology and firearms.
In the first flash of unrest after the grand jury announcement, Belmar said he told officers to back off, suggesting they handle the situation as if it were a festival or baseball game. But the situation quickly “spun out of control,” as protesters looted businesses and set fire to numerous vehicles, including at least two police cars. Officers eventually lobbed tear gas from inside armoured vehicles to disperse crowds.
Related reading: Ferguson highlights: What the grand jury heard
As McCulloch read his statement, Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, sat atop a vehicle listening to a broadcast of the announcement. When she heard the decision, she burst into tears and began screaming before being whisked away by supporters.
The crowd with her erupted in anger, converging on the barricade where police in riot gear were standing. They pushed down the barricade and began pelting police with objects, including a bullhorn. Officers stood their ground.
Speaking for nearly 45 minutes, a defensive McCulloch repeatedly cited what he said were inconsistencies and erroneous witness accounts. When asked by a reporter whether any of the accounts amount to perjury, he said, “I think they truly believe that’s what they saw, but they didn’t.”
McCulloch never mentioned that Brown was unarmed when he was killed.
Brown’s family released a statement saying they were “profoundly disappointed” 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.”
Shortly after the announcement, authorities released more than 1,000 pages of grand jury documents, including Wilson’s testimony.
Wilson told jurors that he initially encountered Brown and a friend walking in a street and, when he told them to move to a sidewalk, Brown responded with an expletive. Wilson then noticed that Brown had a handful of cigars, “and that’s when it clicked for me,” he said, referring to a radio report minutes earlier of a robbery at a nearby convenience store.
Wilson said he asked a dispatcher to send additional police, and then backed his vehicle up in front of Brown and his friend. As he tried to open the door, Wilson said Brown slammed it back shut.
The officer said he pushed Brown with the door and Brown hit him in the face. Wilson told grand jurors he was thinking: “What do I do not to get beaten inside my car.”
“I drew my gun,” Wilson told the grand jury. “I said, ‘Get back or I’m going to shoot you.”’
“He immediately grabs my gun and says, ‘You are too much of a pussy to shoot me,”’ Wilson told grand jurors. He said Brown grabbed the gun with his right hand, twisted it and “digs it into my hip.”
Asked why he felt the need to pull his gun, Wilson told grand jurors he was concerned another punch to his face could “knock me out or worse.”
After shots were fired in the vehicle, Brown fled and Wilson gave chase. At some point, Brown turned around to face the officer.
Witness accounts were conflicted about whether Brown walked, stumbled or charged back toward Wilson before he was fatally wounded, McCulloch said. There were also differing accounts of how or whether Brown’s hands were raised. His body fell about 153 feet from Wilson’s vehicle.
Thousands of people rallied — mostly peacefully — in other U.S. cities on Monday night, and President Barack Obama appealed for calm and understanding, pleading with both protesters and police to show restraint.
“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 angered, but echoed Brown’s parents in calling for peaceful protests.
About 10 St. Louis-bound flights were diverted or cancelled Monday night because of concern about gunfire being aimed into the sky, a Lambert-St. Louis International Airport spokesman said, but the restrictions expired at 3:30 a.m.
The Justice Department is conducting a separate investigation into possible civil rights violations that could result in federal charges, but investigators would need to satisfy a rigorous standard of proof in order to mount a prosecution. The department also has launched a broad probe into the Ferguson Police Department, looking for patterns of discrimination.
Regardless of the outcome of those investigations, Brown’s family could also file a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wilson.
The August shooting heightened tensions in the predominantly black suburb that is patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police force. As Brown’s body lay for hours in the centre of a residential street, an angry crowd of onlookers gathered. Rioting and looting occurred the following night, and police responded with armoured vehicles and tear gas.
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. Nixon briefly summoned the National Guard.
Ron Johnson, the Missouri State Highway Patrol captain who oversaw Ferguson security during the summer protests, said the community must take some responsibility for the looting that took place Monday night. There were about 25 fires set overnight, and 10 cars burned at a dealership, Ferguson Assistant Fire Chief Steve Fair told local media. A pizza shop, beauty supply store and two auto parts stores were among those burned.
“Those are dreams,” Johnson said. “Those are small-business owners, and we’ve torn those dreams away.”