FERGUSON, Mo. — A small group of protesters, with outside agitators among them, defied a curfew here Saturday night, clashing with police a week after the shooting death of the unarmed Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer. Seven people were arrested and one person was shot and critically wounded by an unknown gunman.
Members of the Revolution Club of Chicago helped to gin up support for resistance to the curfew, imposed by Gov. Jay Nixon earlier in the day and set to begin at midnight.
Shortly after 12 a.m. members of the group and residents advanced toward police, who for the first time since the introduction of Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson into this saga formed a line of riot-ready officers and SWAT vehicles. It was a scene that Nixon and other officials were hoping to avoid, but one that has become bizarrely familiar to residents here.
After repeated warnings to disperse, police fired on the crowd, sending tear gas canisters clanking down the street as chaos ensued. Initially, some media outlets reported the police's assertion that the bombs were simply smoke grenades. But the situation on the ground told a different story. As protesters and a relatively small number of journalists scattered—many stayed in the police designated "staging area" a few blocks north of the protest zone—the telltale signs of tear gas began to take hold.
A female resident was seen vomiting and was helped off the ground by a man. A photographer also lost his lunch due to the gas. Many were heard coughing and seen rubbing watery, stinging red eyes. For a chaotic stretch of about 20 minutes police fired at least two dozen bombs, their smoke taking over the area and sending residents into nearby neighborhoods. Then came the flanking attack.
From the north—opposite the area where many journalists sat, confined to the staging area by threat of arrest—a St. Louis County squad car approached. Seconds after it was seen, rubber bullets went flying in multiple directions, whistling through the air and ricocheting off buildings, cars, fences and the street. But just as suddenly as it appeared, the firing squad cars were gone.
The return of riot cops may have been prompted by gunfire. There were media reports that at least one person was carrying a handgun, resulting in the shooting of someone unrelated to the protests. That person is critically wounded, Johnson told reporters. Other reports said armed men had broken into a restaurant.
That outsiders have inserted themselves into the situation may not be surprising. For a week now reports of a surprisingly hyper-militarized police force in this small suburb of St. Louis and a series of disturbing developments regarding Brown's death have captured the attention of the world.
Prior to the latest round of this conflict Saturday night, representatives of another group, many of whom are not from Ferguson, played an entirely different role than the radical group from Chicago. The New Black Panther Party made their presence known Saturday night. Their leader, Malik Shabazz, implored protesters to abide by the curfew for hours preceding the violence. Group by group, Shabazz and his followers made their way up and down West Florissant Avenue, which by day is a fairly typical boulevard of strip malls and restaurants that has turned into a corridor of chaos several nights this week. In these somewhat random but methodical visits, Shabazz pleaded with protesters.
"They got a plan to slaughter us tonight," he told the crowd through a bullhorn.
Often, the groups Shabazz spoke to most fervently were comprised of young men, some with bandanas or other cloth covering their faces. These groups, Shabazz knows, are the ones coming out late at night, in some cases openly taunting police, looking for revenge over Brown's death, or just wanting to send a message to a police department they see as oppressive.
"You got to promise that we get our justice," one masked youth told Shabazz.
Malik responded through the bullhorn, calling for the immediate indictment of Darren Wilson, the cop who shot and killed Brown.
It was a common sentiment, and one expressed by anguished residents at the governor’s news conference where he announced the curfew earlier on Saturday.
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 Wilson—a six-year veteran of the Ferguson Police Department. 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.
At the time, Johnson said the police assigned to keep order would not enforce the curfew with the SWAT trucks and riot gear-equipped cops that have dominated front pages across the country since Brown’s death. But that is what happened.
As the curfew time of midnight approached it began to look like the efforts of Shabazz, who said at the press conference earlier that he didn’t believe the curfew could be imposed without confrontation, wouldn't be enough. Instead of imploring protesters to leave, a young Black Panther—maybe aged 12—repeated the phone number of a friendly attorney to call should anyone be arrested. Seven were.
Regardless of whether they left, Shabazz had a message for the residents, activists, protesters and radicals who withstood a midnight downpour only to flee when tear gas came raining down on them.
"The world is watching," he told the crowd. "And they love us."