FERGUSON, Mo. — Protests erupted in the streets of the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson Monday night, after word came from a grand jury that Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in August, would face no criminal charges from the state.
“They determined that no probable cause exists to charge Officer Wilson,” St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch announced Monday night.
The decision was followed quickly by public anger on the streets of Ferguson. Activists were met by tear gas and flash-bangs — nonlethal explosives — employed by the police in an attempt to disperse the crowds. Some Ferguson businesses were vandalized or burned, and journalists reported hearing gunshots.
The violent protests occurred despite a plea by the family of Michael Brown, the slain teenager, which released a statement expressing disappointment in the grand jury’s decision and calling for calm.
“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,” the family said.
The family’s plea was echoed by President Obama, who spoke from the White House shortly after the announcement in Missouri.
“Michael Brown’s parents have lost more than anyone. We should be honoring their wishes,” the president said.
At the same time, Obama acknowledged the tensions that helped fuel weeks of protest following Brown’s death. “A deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color,” he said.
A police officer was shot in University City, an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis, at about 11:30 Monday night, according to a report on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website. The officer’s injuries were unknown, and it was unclear if there was a connection between the shooting and violence that followed the grand jury’s decision.
Even before announcing the grand jury’s decision, McCulloch, the prosecutor, defended it.
“The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact from fiction,” he told reporters. “It is important to note here and say again: They are the only people who have heard and examined every witness and every piece of evidence.”
But McCulloch’s explanation did nothing to calm the protesters Monday night. Within 90 minutes, Interstate 44 was blocked by protesters. A pizza parlor was on fire. A helicopter flew overhead, shining a floodlight on the crowd. On South Florissant Street, about a half block away from the Ferguson Police Department, protesters blocked off the street, impeding traffic. At about 11 p.m., police officers advanced toward them, calling their presence an unlawful assembly.
Stacey Ingram, 46, watched the scene with dismay from the parking lot of Drake’s Place restaurant, where he works, near the Ferguson police station.
“I kind of felt it was going to be like this injustice,” he said.
Still, he objected to the destruction of businesses in the community. “What is this going to do for the black-owned businesses and the white-owned businesses that have black employees?’’ he asked. “You’re destroying your own community.”
Keshia Young, 27, said she had a feeling the grand jury would reach the decision it did. “I feel like it just set us back 100-plus years,” she said.
McCulloch said the grand jury considered whether Wilson was the initial aggressor in his altercation with 18-year-old Brown, whether he was authorized as a police officer to use deadly force, and whether he used self-defense. The jurors were asked to consider a range of possible indictments, ranging from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. He said the 12-member grand jury had met on 25 separate days over several months beginning in late August. They heard more than 70 hours of testimony from about 60 witnesses.
McCulloch said investigators had tackled the case with “no preconceived notions.” He said their only goal was that their investigation be “thorough and complete.”
Among their biggest challenges, McCulloch said: the 24-hour news cycle and social media. And, he noted, his duty and that of the grand jury was to “seek justice,” not simply seek an indictment. “My deepest sympathies to the family of Michael Brown,” McCulloch said. “Regardless of the circumstances, they lost a loved one to violence.”
The decision was announced Monday evening at the St. Louis County Justice Center. Hours before the ruling, state and local officials appealed to the public for peace.
“Now is the time to show the world that we can act without being destructive,” St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, said at an early-evening press conference.
Wilson, 28, fatally shot Brown on Aug. 9. In the days and weeks since then, accounts differed on precisely what happened and even who started the altercation. Some witnesses described Wilson as the aggressor; others said Brown assaulted Wilson and tried to get his gun. After the initial altercation, many accounts said that Brown ran and then turned back. Wilson said Brown was running at him when he fired the fatal shots, but some witnesses said Brown was surrendering, hands in the air. Autopsy reports showed that Wilson shot Brown at least six times.
The young man’s death exposed the fraught race relations in the St. Louis suburb. The shooting was followed by nearly constant protests, some of them violent, and drew activists and media from across the country. Photographs and video footage of the scene, including police officers in riot gear and deploying tear gas against protesters, stunned viewers, and protests spread across the country, to New York; Oakland, Calif.; Boston, and other communities.
In Ferguson, some have described Brown’s death as the latest injustice in a political and judicial system long rigged against African-Americans.
And in the district along West Florissant Avenue, the heart of the previous protests, most businesses are open but hidden behind plywood.
Many have huge black-and-white pictures of hands covering the plywood, a visual representation of the slogan that has come to define the protest movement: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.