FERGUSON, Mo. – The FBI on Monday opened a civil rights inquiry into the fatal shooting by a police officer of an unarmed black teenager here as protests went into their third day and 32 people were arrested after a night of violent looting in this St. Louis suburb.
Officers donned riot gear Monday and warily faced off against hundreds, mostly African-Americans, who gathered under a hot sun and questioned the role that race – and simmering tensions between residents and the Police Department – may have played in the killing of Michael Brown, 18, who had been due to start college this week.
“You have to begin with the frustration,” said Wayne Bledsoe of St. Louis, who attended the protest. “Treatment of these communities is not equal. In white communities, the police truly protect and serve. In black communities, that is not the case. And now another mother has lost her son.”
Ferguson, a city of 21,000 northwest of St. Louis, has shifted substantially in the last decade, with blacks, once a minority, now making up two-thirds of the residents, after white families moved out to surrounding suburbs. The town’s leadership and the police have remained predominantly white. Officials have so far declined to identify the policeman who shot Brown or disclose his race. He was put on administrative leave.
In 2013, the suspension of a black superintendent of schools by an all-white school board stirred protests. And the Justice Department has a continuing investigation into racial disparities in legal representation for juveniles in Family Court.
“The community is still highly segregated,” said Karen Knodt, interim pastor of the Immanuel United Church of Christ, whose congregation has 800 members, only four of whom are black. “The institutions of power don’t yet reflect the changing demographics of the county.”
At a news conference Monday, Jon Belmar, the St. Louis County police chief, who said his department was asked by the Ferguson police to take over the investigation of the shooting, pleaded for the public’s patience.
“I understand that the public has a right to be skeptical, and I appreciate that and I would expect that the public be skeptical oftentimes of government or some forms of it,” he said. “But I would also ask the public to be reasonable, because it takes a long time to make sure we do this investigation the right way.”
On social media, reaction to Brown’s killing was fierce, with many accusing the police of again shooting an unarmed black youth. It included a Twitter campaign called “IfTheyGunnedMeDown” prompted by a photograph of Brown that was used in some news stories about his killing. In the photo, Brown is shown with fingers of his right hand outstretched in what some considered a “peace” sign while others called it a gang sign.
Brown’s parents said at a news conference that he was nonviolent and good-natured and would have objected to the looting. Their lawyer, Benjamin Crump, compared the case to another one in which he represented a family, that of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black who was shot to death in Florida two years ago by a Neighborhood Watch coordinator, leading to national protests.
“We need justice for our son,” his father, Michael Brown, said, as his lawyer asked witnesses to step forward with testimony or videotape if they had it.
“If any of you have information, please give it to us,” Brown said. “We don’t want no violence.”
“Because Michael wouldn’t want no violence,” said Lesley McSpadden, his mother, weeping and staring downward.
The circumstances of Brown’s death Saturday afternoon as he and a friend walked from a convenience store were disputed. The police said he had hit the officer who shot him; his family and friends denied that. In a local television interview, the friend who was walking with him, Dorian Johnson, said the officer opened fire when the young men refused to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk.
He said Brown’s hands were over his head. The autopsy showed Brown was shot a number of times.
Ferguson police said they do not have videotapes running in their patrol cars. Residents of Ferguson said they were shaken by the unrest that swept the town Sunday night, bringing 500 officers to the streets.
One school district nearby canceled classes Monday, citing safety concerns. Many businesses refused to open.
Outside the Police Department, groups of residents gathered in protest, criticizing the police but also condemning the looting from the night before.
“We don’t want any more violence around here,” said Carolyn Teague, a nurse, as she wiped away tears. The tension, she said, had one source: “Prejudice in this town still lives on.”