FERGUSON, Mo. (Reuters) - Aiming to head off new looting and rioting, Missouri’s governor on Tuesday ordered National Guard reinforcements into the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson following overnight violence ignited by the clearing of a white police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
Attorneys for the family of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot to death by officer Darren Wilson in August, condemned as biased the grand jury process that led to Monday’s decision not to bring criminal charges against Wilson.
About a dozen Ferguson buildings burned overnight and 61 people were arrested on charges including burglary, illegal weapons possession and unlawful assembly, police said. Police said protesters fired guns at them, lit patrol cars on fire and hurled bricks into their lines. Police fired tear gas and flash-bang canisters at protesters and shops were looted.
The killing in Ferguson, a predominantly black city with a white-dominated power structure, underscores the sometimes tense nature of U.S. race relations. The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision also led to protests in other major U.S. cities. The unrest came despite calls by President Barack Obama and others for police and protesters to exercise restraint.
The grand jury decision shifts the legal spotlight to the ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation into whether Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights by intentionally using excessive force and whether Ferguson police systematically violate people’s rights by using excessive force or discrimination.
Brown family lawyer Benjamin Crump said the grand jury process was unfair because the prosecutor in the case had a conflict of interest and Wilson was not properly cross-examined.
“This process is broken. The process should be indicted,” Crump told a news conference, adding that the family wants police to be equipped with body video cameras to provide an indisputable account of their actions.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said he was meeting with law enforcement officials and bolstering the National Guard deployment to ensure that people and property are protected in the days ahead.
“The violence we saw in areas of Ferguson last night is unacceptable,” Nixon said in a statement.
His office said “the Guard is providing security at the Ferguson Police Department, which will allow additional law enforcement officers to protect the public.”
While news channels aired Obama’s live remarks calling for restraint from the White House on one side of the screen, they showed violent scenes from Ferguson on the other.
“This is going to happen again,” said Ferguson area resident James Hall, 56, as he walked past a building smoldering from a blaze set during the street protests in the city.
“If they had charged him with something, this would not have happened to Ferguson,” he said.
Although no serious injuries were reported, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the rioting on Monday night and early Tuesday morning was “much worse” than the disturbances that erupted in the immediate aftermath of the August shooting.
The smell of smoke hung in the air along a stretch of West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson. The street was closed by police but heaps of broken glass and piles of rubble accumulated in front of the few buildings that had not been boarded up.
“We see that Michael Brown’s death has been spit upon by the criminal justice system here,” said the Reverend Michael McBride, an activist from California.
“Now is the opportunity for the president to really be my brother’s keeper,” said McBride.
In the city of St. Louis, where windows were broken and traffic was briefly stopped on a major highway overnight, Police Chief Sam Dotson vowed a stronger response on Tuesday night.
Schools in Ferguson and its surrounding cities were closed on Tuesday and city offices in Ferguson were also shut.
Wilson could have faced charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. Brown’s family said through their lawyers that they were “profoundly disappointed” by the grand jury’s finding.
Wilson offered thanks to his supporters, saying “your dedication is amazing,” in a letter attributed to him posted on a Facebook page for those who have rallied to his side.
Attorneys for Wilson, who was placed on administrative leave and has avoided the spotlight since the shooting, said he was following his training and the law when he shot Brown.
Wilson told the grand jury that Brown had tried to grab his gun and he felt his life was in danger when he fired, according to documents released by prosecutors.
“I said, ‘Get back or I’m going to shoot you,’” Wilson said, according to the documents. “He immediately grabs my gun and says, ‘You are too much of a pussy to shoot me.’”
Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Carey Gillam in Kansas City, David Bailey in Minneapolis and Fiona Ortiz and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; Writing by Scott Malone and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Bill Trott and Will Dunham