A demonstration that began quietly erupted into rampaging and looting early Saturday on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., where police in heavy gear and armored vehicles confronted more than 100 protesters near the place where Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, had been shot dead by police.
While peaceful demonstrators tried to dissuade them, even attempting to block shop fronts with their bodies, small groups of looters smashed windows and rushed into several stores, grabbing merchandise. Police in riot gear shouted on bullhorns, ordering them to disperse.
A group of five men broke into a beauty supply store before they were confronted by other protesters, who halted them by forming a chain in front of the entrance and chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
The would-be looters then rushed the mini-mart that has become a center of controversy after police released surveilance video Friday purporting to show Brown grabbing cigars and strong-arming a store clerk not long before his fatal encounter with police.
The Brown family’s attorney accused Ferguson police Chief Thomas Jackson of character assassination Friday for releasing the video purportedly tying Brown to the robbery at the same time the department released the identity of the officer who later shot him.
“He chose to talk about something to darken up this man’s past,” attorney Anthony Gray said at a news conference Friday.
Protests outside the mini-mart unfolded relatively quietly with a somewhat festive atmosphere Friday night, then turned disruptive in the early morning hours of Saturday.
“You must disperse immediately or you will be subject to arrest,” officers said over a megaphone as the crowd stood in the street.
At first the protesters began to clear the street, but then some bottles were thrown and soon glass littered the asphalt. At least three Molotov cocktails were lobbed, CNN reported.
Kevin Brankley, 29, a construction worker, said he knew Brown, who was shot one week ago by a Ferguson police officer. Brankley saw police shoot tear gas at one point near the intersection, and some civilians shot guns into the air in response.
Cones that formed a roadblock near the intersection were being dragged by protesters closer to the police.
“The more worse they act,” Brankley said of the police, “the more worse we’ll act.”
Latasha Hughes and Bianca Bailey, who attended the same high school as Brown, watched in dismay as groups of mostly young black men looted at least two nearby stores.
Bailey, 20, was still wearing her uniform from the McDonald’s next to the mini-mart.
“It’s a tragedy,” she said of the looting, “But at the same time, it’s a lesson. The choices that they’re making are going to have consequences.”
Hughes said she felt divided.
“As far as the looting, I can’t condone it,” she said, “But if it’s the way they think they can have justice ....”
She watched protesters confronting police, including a woman who she heard shout at officers: “Go ahead and shoot me!”
Hughes, 20, was glad that police in four armored vehicles held back, not intervening to stop the looting, but said they also fed the mayhem.
“Having a standoff with police, trying to entice them, that’s a no-no,” she said. “They’re doing their job to protect and serve. They don’t want to have a mass murder.”
A helicopter passed overhead, illuminating the scene as police began to advance at about 1:30 a.m., urging protesters to clear the streets.
“Was it important, was it worth it?” one young woman asked a young man in front of a smashed meat market after rioters had moved on.
“I think it’s pretty stupid, to be honest,” said Marqueise Gordon, 18, who said he watched the events at the meat market but didn’t participate. “The same store that people are breaking into is the same store people are going to go into to buy whatever,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Still, he held up a bottle of liquor, which he said the looters had given him.
An older man watched the chaos. “This is crazy. This is not what it’s for,” he said as several young men ran past, toting boxes of beer. “Why?” he called to them, in a tone of despair. “Why?”
Police remained stationed on the road farther south. They warned protesters to disperse, shouting on bullhorns, and were occasionally pelted with bottles. But unlike the events earlier this week, they did not use force to push back the crowd.