FERGUSON, Mo. – Chaos returned to the streets of Ferguson after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer in the death of Michael Brown – a decision that enraged protesters who set fire to buildings and cars and looted businesses in the area where the unarmed, black 18-year-old was fatally shot.
Monday night’s destruction appeared to be much worse than protests after August’s shootings, 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.
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.”
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.
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.
“They are the only people that have heard and examined every witness and every piece of evidence,” he said, adding that the jurors “poured their hearts and soul into this process.”
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 armored vehicles to disperse crowds. There were at least 29 arrests, police said.
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.”
The prosecutor also was critical of the media, saying “the most significant challenge” for his office was a “24-hour news cycle and an insatiable appetite for something – for anything – to talk about.”
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 canceled 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 Aug. 9 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 center of a residential street, an angry crowd of onlookers gathered. Rioting and looting occurred the following night, and police responded with armored 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. Missouri Gov. Jay 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. A pizza shop, beauty supply store and two auto parts stores were among those fires.
“Those are dreams,” Johnson said. “Those are small-business owners, and we’ve torn those dreams away.”