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Simmering tension in Ferguson as city braces for second night of protest

Lawyers for family of slain teen say legal process ‘broken’ and ‘unfair’ after grand jury clears officer

night of chaos, arson and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri was replaced by simmering tension Tuesday as authorities prepared for a second night of protest in the city. Amid the relative calm that followed overnight mayhem, scattered rallies persisted, with community members continuing to protest a grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white policy officer, for the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

About 100 demonstrators, including many clergy members, took to the streets of the St. Louis suburb just hours after overnight clashes had left areas scarred by arson. Demonstrators observed a 4 1/2-minute moment of silence to mark the 4 1/2 hours that Brown's body remained on a Ferguson street before it was removed.

Volunteers in Ferguson also gathered with brooms, drills and other tools to sweep up broken glass and help shop owners board up their stores. A local Mexican restaurant handed out free tacos to volunteers. A large police presence persisted along West Florissant Avenue, where they had blocked off a four or five block area as a crime scene.

The scene in Ferguson looked very different from the previous night, when the grand jury decision was first delivered. Following the announcement, a crowd near the Ferguson police station erupted in anger, converging on a barricade where police in riot gear were standing. They pushed down the barriers and began pelting police with items, 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.

More than 80 people were arrested in the chaos, the majority of whom were held on suspicion of trespassing and burglary. Fourteen people were injured in the protests and a dozen or more shops set fire to. In the chaos of the night, police also found the body of a man in his 20s inside a Pontiac car with its windows shot out. It is not known if his death was directly connected to the night’s unrest.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay told local press on Tuesday morning he thought the clashes were "unfortunate."

“I think the unfortunate part about it is what that violence does. It not only puts a black eye on our community, but it sets back the cause of social justice,” he said.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson assured reporters during a Tuesday press conference that they would "see a large police presence tonight," as local law enforcement attempts to quell the unrest that had been unleashed the night before.  Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon later announced that additional members of the National Guard had been called to Ferguson to provide security at the Ferguson Police Department.

The decision not to indict Wilson came more than three months after the police officer 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.

After Monday’s grand jury announcement, the Brown family released a statement saying they were "profoundly disappointed," but they asked that the public to "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."

In a Tuesday press conference where they were joined by long-standing civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, attorneys for the Brown family denounced the grand jury process as "broken," and McCulloch himself as biased in favor of Officer Wilson.

"We said from the very beginning that the decision of this grand jury was going to be a direct reflection of the presentation of evidence by the prosecutor's office," said family attorney Anthony Gray. "If they had presented to indict, there would have been an indictment."

President Barack Obama called for calm in a late-night statement from the White House. But that message went largely unheeded on the streets of Ferguson after weeks of tension and occasionally violent protests failed to satisfy 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,” Obama said. “But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully. 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."

Wilson's attorneys released a statement shortly after St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision Monday night. They expressed their client's gratitude toward his supporters and his family.

"Officer Wilson followed his training and followed the law," the statement said. "We recognize that many people will want to second-guess the grand jury's decision. We would encourage anyone who wants to express an opinion to do so in a peaceful manner."

McCulloch told reporters that his heart "goes out" to the Brown family.

"It doesn't lessen the tragedy by the fact that it was a justifiable use of force," he said. "There's still a loss of life here, and that family is going to have that loss forever."

McCulloch urged protesters and community members who believed Brown's death was the result of larger social ills to "keep that discussion going" and "do it in a constructive way."

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 against Wilson, 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, while 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 in advance their intention to offer 24-hour sanctuary for any protesters or congregation members.

Despite the latest violent outburst, authorities will be mindful not to be seen to be responding too heavy-handedly. 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.

With wire services. Brian Heffernan and William Powell contributed to this report from Ferguson.

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