FERGUSON, Mo. — Many who gathered Sunday night along West Florissant Avenue, a commercial strip in Ferguson that has become place of protest since Michael Brown was gunned down last week, were not here to demonstrate against the death of the teen by a police officer, authorities said.
They were here to act out their rage in violence, unleashing a torrent of “premeditated criminal acts designed to damage property, hurt people, provoke a response,” Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said at an early morning news conference.
According to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, these actions have resulted in the National Guard being called to help restore order.
“These violent acts are a disservice to the family of Michael Brown and his memory, and to the people of this community who yearn for justice to be served, and to feel safe in their own homes,” Nixon said in a statement.
There were fights among those in the crowd, and there was shooting, looting, and vandalism, Johnson said. Police responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Seven to eight people were arrested and three were injured, according to police. None of the injured were law enforcement, Johnson said.
The night had a markedly different feel to it than the days of protest, when hundreds of men and women gathered along several blocks of West Florissant Avenue to decry Brown’s death and demand answers and change in this small city in northern St. Louis County.
During the day, families walk the street, chanting what has become a common refrain, “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” Witnesses have said Brown had his hands up when a Ferguson police officer with six years of experience killed him on Aug. 9.
A different element emerged Sunday night.
On Saturday the community was largely able to police itself with members of motorcycle clubs, the New Black Panther Party, and the Nation of Islam stepping in to do crowd control. That did not appear to be the case Sunday, when the local peacekeeping forces appeared to be few in number.
As Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who has been a constant presence at West Florissant Avenue since Brown’s death, tweeted Sunday, “Not enough adults out here tonight.”
At 8:25 p.m., hours before the midnight curfew, “the situation deteriorated,” Johnson said. Someone was shot at West Florissant and Ferguson avenues.
A minute later, more gunshots. Another minute: a report of someone down. Then came a report of eight people with guns.
Johnson said hundreds of protesters marched toward a shopping center anchored by a Target and serving as the police command post at 8:56 p.m.
“As the crowd approached the shopping center, multiple Molotov cocktails were thrown at police,” Johnson said. “At that time, police deployed tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd.”
Despite the crowd being filled with those who Johnson said were determined to cause violence, there were families present, too. There were women with infants in their arms and strollers. There were senior citizens.
Mothers could be heard screaming at their daughters to “Move!” and “Cover your face!” as plumes of tear gas burned eyes and choked throats. People urged demonstrators to “get out of the street,” hoping that would help stop the barrage of tear gas canisters, several of which landed in the media staging area.
When the gas had dissipated and most of the crowds dispersed, Candice Dotson, 38, stood in the McDonald’s parking lot on West Florissant, stunned and sorrowful. She had brought her 11-year-old son to the area so he could witness the power of collective action, she said.
Instead, he was tear-gassed.
They were separated from their car by a police blockade, so she was trapped. A stranger allowed her son to take refuge in his car.
“He’s terrified,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I can’t believe they are throwing tear gas in a crowd with children.”