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Streets of Ferguson smolder after grand jury declines to indict officer

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UPDATED 11/25/14 12:32 P.M.

FERGUSON, Missouri (CNN) —  Ferguson early Tuesday morning was full of chaos and violence.

Shattered glass from looted stores covered the asphalt. The smoke of tear gas lingered in the cold air. And more than a dozen buildings, including stores owned by local residents, were inexplicably set ablaze.

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“This ain’t Iraq. This is the United States,” Demetric Whitlock yelled to a line of police officers on South Florissant Road, in front of the Ferguson Police Department.

When a grand jury decided Monday not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, the act triggered fresh confrontations between protesters and police in the tense Missouri city.

While most of the protesters were peacefully assembled on the streets of Ferguson, some smashed the windows of a police cruiser and set another on fire.

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An entire row of businesses on West Florissant Avenue, a major thoroughfare, was engulfed in flames. Police cars and a row of vehicles at a nearby dealership were turned into fireballs. There were so many infernos that firefighters couldn’t get to every one.

There were also reports of gunshots: St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar heard at least 100 through the night, though Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson insisted no bullets were fired by police. CNN’s Sara Sidner was struck in the head with a bottle.

“What we saw tonight was much worse than what we saw any night in August,” the St. Louis County police said on Facebook, referring to the days immediately after Brown’s death. “Bricks were thrown at police officers, two St. Louis County police cars were set on fire and police seized an automatic weapon.”

Authorities responded with round after round of tear gas, as well as shooting bean bags into the crowds.

Six people were treated and released with minor injuries between 10 p.m. Monday and 4 a.m. Tuesday at Christian Hospital in St. Louis, hospital spokesman Bret Berigan said. There were no known serious injuries — either to citizens or police officers — according to Belmar.

Police in Ferguson ended up making at least 61 arrests on charges ranging from unlawful assembly to burglary to unlawful possession of a firearm to arson.

By mid-Tuesday morning, the plazas were empty. Even the scene outside the police department — where Missouri National Guard members were to provide security, under orders of Gov. Jay Nixon — was calm.

But no one was under the belief that the tensions, or the threats of more unrest, were gone.

“People here have a real grudge against the police,” said one protester, Demetric Whitlock. “It’s not going away.”

Protesters turn out nationwide

It wasn’t just that way in Ferguson.

Twelve miles south in St. Louis, Police Chief Sam Dotson said windows of businesses located across the street from a protest gathering spot were smashed and 21 people were arrested on felony accusations, including illicit gun possession. But no one was shot.

“What we saw last night is the criminals were using the cover of the organized protests to do their criminal activity,” Dotson said.

News about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson also spread quickly nationwide, spurring others to turn out for spontaneous rallies in support of Brown’s family and against what they characterized as unnecessary force by some police against citizens, especially African-Americans.

Some laid down on the street outside the White House in protest. In New York’s Union Square, scores held up a huge, lit-up sign that read, “Black lives matter.” More protesters took their message to the streets of Seattle, Washington, and Oakland, California.

Others will get their chance to express their views in more than 100 pro-Brown family vigils and gatherings in cities big and small — from Los Angeles to Bangor, Maine — planned nationwide on Tuesday.

There is the chance that, in Ferguson or any of those places, violence could flare between protesters and police.

The idea of more destruction and more violence pains the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a pastor at Ferguson’s Christ the King United Church of Christ, who backs Brown’s family but not what’s happening to their city.

“I hurt for all the people in my community, and I hurt for the many young people who did everything they could … to make sure that last night was not violent and make sure their voices were heard,” she said. “And unfortunately, the pain and the rage of a few have made a different narrative.”

‘Exhaustive review’

All of this unrest, all of this tension dates to August 9, when Brown and a friend were walking down the middle of a Ferguson street.

What happened next — from the shooting, to the failure to immediately charge Wilson in Brown’s death, to the at-times violent clashes between authorities and Brown family supporters — turned Ferguson from a largely unknown St. Louis suburb to the center of a national debate over race, law enforcement and the interaction of the two.

The basic facts have never been disputed, that Wilson shot Brown.

But exactly how and why that happened is hotly disputed. Grand jury testimony released late Monday offered little resolution, with Wilson’s version contradicting the accounts offered by some witnesses.

The St. Louis County grand jury of nine white and three black members got a lot of information — meeting 25 times, during which they heard from 60 witnesses and three medical examiners in 70 hours of testimony.

The grand jurors’ mission was never to convict Wilson. Rather, it was to decide whether there was reason enough to charge him with a crime — either first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. They also could have added a charge of armed criminal action. If at least nine of the 12 grand jurors had voted that there was enough to proceed with charges, Wilson would have stood trial.

After hearing all of the testimony and deliberating for two days, they decided not to indict the officer on any charge.

Said St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch: “The physical and scientific evidence examined by the grand jury, combined with the witness statements, supported and substantiated by that physical evidence, tells the accurate and tragic story of what happened.”

Yet Anthony Gray, a lawyer for Brown’s family, said that if McCulloch’s office “would have presented evidence to indict, then there would have been an indictment.”

“A first-year law student would have done a better job” cross-examining Wilson than McCulloch did, said another family attorney, Benjamin Crump.

Brown parents: ‘Let’s make a difference’

A woman who helped run a support website for Wilson told CNN Tuesday morning that she thinks the decision spurred “a sigh of relief across the entire law enforcement community.”

“Because they’re all fighting in the aftermath of this now,” said the woman, who wore sunglasses and a baseball cap to hide her identity, and asked not to be named. “And it could have been any one of them.”

Yet Piaget Crenshaw thinks the grand jury got it wrong. One of those who saw Brown get shot and who testified to the grand jury, she doesn’t understand how the teen could have been a deadly threat given that he was unarmed, while Wilson clearly was not.

“His hands were still visible in a manner (in which you could) tell he was unarmed,” Crenshaw told CNN on Tuesday, saying that witnesses’ discrepancies about the exact location of his hands were irrelevant. “(He) should not have been shot.”

The decision not to indict Wilson “devastated” the late teenager’s father. His mother ran down the street, tears streaming down her face.

Video from the New York Times showed a tearful Lesley McSpadden speaking after the news broke, followed by her husband — Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head — hugging her. Head then revs up the crowd, saying “Burn this mother f—er down.”

The late teen’s parents — his biological father Michael Brown Sr. and McSpadden — later issued a statement saying they did not want violence.

“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 parents said. “We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”

The family made a call for police officers across the country to wear body cameras.

“Let’s not just make noise,” the family said, “let’s make a difference.”

Federal investigations

So what happens next?

The U.S. Justice Department is conducting two civil rights investigations in the case: one into whether Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights, and another into the police department’s overall track record with minorities.

The investigations will likely require lots of time, if similar past cases are any indication.

Back in Ferguson, residents worried about the toll Monday night’s violence has taken on the quaint revitalized downtown.

One of the casualties was Ferguson Optical. Earlier in the day, manager Tim Marrah had put out the sign he has been displaying since August: “We are family.”

It was no protection against vandals. A storefront window was shattered and left barely standing.

Peaceful protesters were shocked by the violence that has marred the city.

“This is crazy. I mean, this doesn’t do anything,” one resident told CNN.

She worried about how victims would pick up the pieces.

“They’re not going to rebuild. It’s just going to be a ghost town pretty soon.”

 

Original report:

FERGUSON, Mo. – After the initial calm following the grand jury decision, the situation turned ugly in Ferguson.

The protests became a near-riot as angry people tipped cars and set fires.

Armored vehicles moved in firing smoke grenades to break up large groups.

Police in riot gear advanced in column formation to force the crowd back.

Trash cans, at least one police car and other vehicles were set ablaze.

The extent of injuries and property damage thus far is not known.

 

 

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