FERGUSON, Mo. — The response early Saturday to looting in Ferguson, Mo., was a mass exodus of police from the main protest area, which left a convenience store and other businesses wide open to theft and destruction. Now, the new game plan for protests over the death of unarmed teen Michael Brown that are expected to continue Saturday night is the polar opposite.
Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Saturday and announced a curfew for parts of Ferguson, Mo., from 12-5 a.m. tonight in an effort to prevent the looting that occurred Saturday morning and restrain the heavy-handed police action that has been taking place all week in protests here.
“We won’t enforce [the curfew] with trucks. We won’t enforce it with tear gas. We're going to communicate and talk about (how) it's time to go home,” said Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is in charge of security in the area after Nixon relieved the St. Louis County Police Department of their duties.
Johnson and the governor were repeatedly interrupted at the press conference by an angry and frustrated community. The media event quickly descended into shouts from the crowd that were met with frustrated looks from public officials. As with many situations here, the event was indicative of the level of conflict permeating this St. Louis suburb since Brown’s death last week.
Several people at the press conference called for the indictment of the officer who shot and killed Brown a week ago this evening — a six-year veteran of the Ferguson Police Department named Darren Wilson. Residents and activists were so vociferous in their dressing down of Johnson and Nixon Saturday afternoon that few reporters were able to ask questions of their own.
“Stop killing our people!” one man yelled.
It’s unclear how Johnson and his forces — which continue to included officers from the St. Louis County and Ferguson police departments, among others — will enforce the curfew. But Johnson said it won’t be done with the SWAT trucks and riot gear-equipped cops that have dominated front pages across the country since Brown’s death.
Malik Shabazz, a member of the New Black Panther Party who are here in the hundreds, said what was likely on many people’s minds.
“I don’t believe that police can enforce the curfew without a confrontation,” Shabazz told Johnson as he stood behind a cluster of microphones.
Police avoided confrontation almost completely last night. Only one tear gas canister was fired by an officer after he felt threatened when three of his fellow officers were injured, Johnson said Saturday. After Mauricelm-Lei Millere, another New Black Panther Party member, implored a small group of protesters to go home in the wee hours of Saturday, police left.
That’s when the looting began. Several storefronts had already been shattered by that time. But Ferguson Market, now at the center of national attention since Police Chief Thomas Jackson announced it was the scene of a “strong-armed” robbery of which Brown was the alleged perpetrator, was the most heavily damaged.
Officers from multiple law enforcement agencies had left the area of the store after another lengthy protest over the death of unarmed teen Brown.
Thursday night’s protests were peaceful following Johnson taking over as head of security after days of clashes that had seen dozens of arrests and the firing of tear gas, rubber bullets and flash grenades. The demonstrations were calm mainly thanks to Johnson, but he, the MSHP and several other police organizations still working to deescalate the situation here were nowhere to be found as masked looters — mostly young men — had their way with the store.
On Friday morning, Jackson released Wilson’s name, along with the account of the robbery. Residents have been loudly and angrily calling for the release of the officer’s name since Brown’s death, which sparked almost a week’s worth of riots and disturbance and laid bare fault lines of race, police power and the worth of the lives of young black men in the United States.
But it was a matter of one step forward and two steps back. After the police released Wilson’s name, they also released photos they said showed Brown had robbed Ferguson Market of a pack of cigars before Wilson stopped and ultimately killed him.
This post-mortum attempt to paint Brown as a suspect angered the mostly black community of Ferguson. It was further exacerbated when Jackson said Wilson knew nothing of the alleged robbery. Any clashes or violence Saturday night will almost surely be rooted in the implementation of the curfew.
Nixon said the curfew is necessary, despite the efforts of some Ferguson residents to prevent looting. Like Millere, small groups did attempt to protect the Ferguson Market and other stores Saturday night, but those efforts failed after police left and young men with their faces covered in bandanas lifted liquor, tobacco products and at least one cash register from the market.
“We also saw a pattern last develop last night when after hours of people protesting, small groups took to the streets, with the intent of committing crimes, and endangering citizens,” Nixon said. “That is unacceptable.”