Police Arrest 31 in Ferguson

by | August 19, 2014

By Tina Susman, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Cathleen Decker

As another night of peaceful protests over the police killing of an unarmed black man devolved into confrontation and confusion, the Missouri State Highway Patrol officer in charge of law enforcement in this St. Louis suburb said 31 people had been arrested as of 2 a.m. Tuesday, some from as far away as California and New York.

The arrests underscore that outsiders are making trouble during the protests that have followed the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by a Ferguson police officer, Capt. Ron Johnson said at a news briefing.

At one point during the night, he said, officers "came under heavy gunfire" but did not return fire.

"This was not an act of protesters," he said. This was an act of violent criminals."

Monday night's vandalism included two fires, he said  -- one at a business, the other at an unoccupied residence. At least two people were shot, he said; he did not know their conditions. Officers used an armored vehicle to rescue one of the gunshot victims, he said. Earlier, he told CNN that the gunfire came from protesters, not from police.

At the early morning news briefing, Johnson displayed two guns and a Molotov cocktail that officers had confiscated.

"Protesters are peaceful and respectful. They don't clash with police. They don't throw Molotov cocktails," he said.

Johnson urged protesters to come out only in the daylight so that provocateurs could not hide behind peaceful crowds.

Earlier, Johnson told CNN that attacks on police had prompted the decision to fire tear gas and begin arresting those who defied orders to disperse.

Officers heard gunfire and shots were fired at their vehicles, he said. Plastic water bottles, some of them frozen, were thrown at police staging areas. And a large group of protesters advanced on officers, he said.

"There becomes a balance on how long do we wait and if we wait too long ...we do not have an opportunity to address that issue. So it becomes a balance."

"That was not part of our plan," he said of the decision to use force to try to scatter the protesters.

Johnson was brought in after a massive, militarized police response in the early days after the Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown backfired and enraged the protesters.

He said he still favors a more peaceful approach but would not shrink from other tactics as needed.

"I know that we still have that approach, we truly do, and for the most part it still works," he said. But some in the crowd "have decided they are not going to be a part of peaceful protest."

Johnson blamed much of the problem on a distinct minority within the crowds, but said the provocateurs' tactics had made it necessary to, in effect, punish everyone.

"What happens is we had subjects down there that were hiding behind bushes," he said, and that forced officers to deploy tear gas.

"Officers can't walk toward that. I would caution anyone who says, 'I'm willing to walk  in the darkness toward a bush and risk my life toward that.'"

Johnson noted that as the ranking officer he was buffeted between protesters angry about a police presence on the streets, and business owners upset that when he first became the commander he had ordered police not to respond to looters lest the violence escalate.

"Can we have it both ways?" he asked. "No."

As he and other law enforcement and community leaders have throughout the crisis, he implored Ferguson's residents -- whom he termed "people who come in peace" -- to leave the protest areas by 4 p.m., well before most of the nightly protests have escalated.

"This has to stop. It has to stop," he said. " I don't want anyone to get hurt...We have to find a way to stop it."

But how exactly that would happen was left unspoken.

Monday's peaceful protests began to unravel around 10 p.m., when about 100 people congregated suddenly in the middle of the blocked-off street at Ferguson and West Florissant avenues. Protesters had been ordered to stay on the sidewalk, and until then they had complied.

"You must disperse the street immediately," police announced via megaphone.

Some protesters got on the sidewalk and walked away, but a few dozen young men stayed where they were, even as local leaders tried to get them to comply.

In response, the National Guard entered the protest zone.

Anthony Bell, a ward committeeman in St. Louis, was among those trying to keep the peace. These protests just have to play out, he told the Los Angeles Times. "It's releasing frustrations. We've got to let them vent."

But as the first sounds and flashes of tear gas rocked the far end of West Florissant Avenue, Bell conceded the nightly standoffs could go on for a long time.

"To get them to go home is going to be difficult," he said of the young men comprising most of the protesters. "The young people who come into the world nowadays, they have minds of their own."

For some time during the tense evening, police lined up hip-to-hip across one of the main roads in the protest area. Some officers leveled weapons in the direction of the demonstrators who had defied bullhorn orders to leave.

Alexis Tucker, 19, of Ferguson, a sophomore at Howard University, watched from the parking lot of a Family Dollar store on West Florissant as protesters lobbed a couple bottles and as police barked commands and, at times, pointed their guns and nightsticks.

"It's horrible," she said, "It's not representative of Ferguson, of fighting for justice."

The dynamic that has marked the protests since Brown's death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer persisted: A massive police presence, community leaders trying to convince protesters to leave, a small band of persistent agitators and a substantial media presence recording it all.

Several people were arrested, including two women who were swarmed by about a dozen officers. CNN reported two arrests, including a man holding a milk bottle filled with pink liquid.

Pastor Charles Ewing was one of several clergymen who came to the protest site earlier Monday to urge a peaceful night. "These young people are hurting. They're frustrated," he told The Times.

Speaking of the violence that has erupted at the protests, Bishop Edwin C. Bass told The Times that it was "symptomatic of a greater disease. "

Bass cited poor job prospects, lack of access to quality education, and what he said was St Louis' segregated neighborhoods that made it easy for races not to mix.

"If you don't have access to other races, it's easy to dehumanize them," he said, "and that's how these kinds of things happen."

(c)2014 the Los Angeles Times