Dramatic clashes between police and protesters roiled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, overnight, after a grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown provoked an eruption of anger.
As St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch was announcing the decision, a crowd gathered around a car whose stereo was tuned to a broadcast of the statement. When the decision was announced, Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, who was sitting atop the car, burst into tears and began screaming before being whisked away by supporters.
The crowd erupted in anger, converging on a barricade where police in riot gear were standing. The throng pushed down the barricade and began pelting police with objects, including a bullhorn.
The windows of a police car were smashed, and protesters tried to topple it before it was set on fire. Police later confirmed they used tear gas in response. By dawn, the streets appeared to have returned to calm, leaving residents and shop owners counting the cost of a night of unrest, property damage and looting. More than 80 people were arrested in the chaos, the majority of whom were held on suspicion of charges of trespass and burglary.
The decision not to indict Wilson comes more than three months after he killed Brown, 18, during a confrontation in the St. Louis suburb, setting off weeks of demonstrations and a national conversation about policing and race relations. Since the shooting, the St. Louis region has been bracing for renewed unrest.
The Browns released a statement saying they were "profoundly disappointed" in the decision 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."
President Barack Obama called for calm in a late-night statement from the White House, but that message went unheeded on the streets of Ferguson after weeks of tension and occasionally violent protests failed to satisfy protesters’ demands for justice.
“We need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction. But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully," Obama said. “Michael Brown’s parents have lost more than anyone. We should be honoring their wishes.”
The president and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, released a statement calling the announcement a "devastating setback."
The anger in Ferguson was palpable. Some people taunted police, shattered windows and vandalized cars. As many as 15 gunshots were heard, though it's unclear whether they came from law enforcement or protesters. Officers released smoke and pepper spray to disperse the crowds. The storefront glass of at least two businesses were broken on South Florissant Road, where fires erupted.
The overnight destruction appeared to be much worse than during protests shortly after Brown’s death.
Earlier, McCulloch said his “sworn duty and that of the grand jury is to seek justice and not simply to attain an indictment or conviction.” He suggested that many of the witness accounts given to law enforcement and the grand jury contradicted one another or differed from earlier statements made by the same witnesses.
“I think there are a number of witnesses, in all honesty, that truly believe what they said, and ones that were consistent even throughout, even in the face of their testimony being in conflict with the physical evidence that was there,” he said.
Nevertheless, emotions ran high.
“I’m extremely angry,” Ferguson resident Reese Loc, 28, told Al Jazeera. “I can’t believe they treat us like this after all these years. They obviously don’t give a damn about us.”
Shellie Robinson, 44, from the neighboring town of Dellwood, also expressed dismay. “I’m disappointed my youth fought hard for something good. They fought hard for something right. They fought for something that mattered,” she said. “I don’t know what I can teach them if they never win.”
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.
Earlier, several area schools recessed early for Thanksgiving break, and barricades were erected in the vicinity of the building where the grand jury was meeting. Anticipating community and possible police reactions to the verdict, more than 15 area churches announced their intention to offer 24-hour sanctuary for protesters and congregation members.
The Ferguson-Florissant School District will be closed for at least one day after the decision because of “the anticipated increase in traffic and possible demonstrations in our area as a result of the pending grand jury announcement this evening,” according to a post on the district’s Facebook page.
Local police drew nationwide criticism during the first days of mostly peaceful protests just after Brown's death, when officers donned riot gear and patrolled in armored vehicles, raising concerns about increasing police militarization under a federal program that supplies surplus military equipment to police departments.
During the weeks of protests a small number of demonstrators attacked squad cars, tossed gasoline bombs at officers and, in a few cases, fired guns in the direction of police, who responded with tear gas, smoke canisters and rubber bullets. On many nights, dozens were arrested.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Brian Heffernan contributed to this report from Ferguson and Wilson Dizard contributed reporting from New York City.