Violence flares after grand jury decides against charges in Ferguson shooting

A man watches a burning building after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

(Reuters) – Gunshots rang out and buildings burned in a Midwestern suburb after a grand jury decided on Monday not to indict a white police officer over the fatal August shooting of an unarmed black teenager, sparking a fresh wave of racially tinged violence.

Overhead flights were restricted and police fired tear gas as rioters took to the streets of Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, looting shops and burning cars despite appeals for restraint from President Barack Obama.

Protests were also staged in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Oakland and Washington, D.C. over a case that has highlighted long-standing racial tensions not just in predominantly black Ferguson but across the United States.

“Murderers, you’re nothing but murderers,” one woman shouted through a megaphone at officers clad in riot gear in Ferguson, Missouri, after the grand jury’s decision was announced. “Stinking murderers.”

Angry crowds gathered around the police department in Ferguson after the grand jury said there was no probable cause to charge officer Darren Wilson with any crime in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose family also called for calm.

St Louis police reported heavy gunfire late on Monday in the area near where Brown was shot and killed on Aug. 9. Storefront windows were smashed, and fires devoured buildings including a beauty shop and a pizza parlor in two stretches of town.

Police fired volleys of tear gas and flash-bang canisters in response to the protests, a repeat of similar unrest that erupted in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Wilson could have faced charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder, and Brown’s family said through their lawyers that they were “profoundly disappointed” by the grand jury’s finding.

“While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change,” the family said in a statement.

Attorneys for Wilson, who has avoided the spotlight since the shooting, said he was following his training and the law when he shot Brown.

“We recognize that many people will want to second-guess the grand jury’s decision. We would encourage anyone who wants to express an opinion do so in a respectful and peaceful manner,” the statement said.

President Barack Obama called for protesters to remain peaceful and for police to show restraint.

“We are a nation built on the rule of law and so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make,” Obama told a televised news conference.

“We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation. The fact remains that in too many parts of this country a deep distrust exists between police and communities of color.”

SHOTS HEARD

As protests escalated in Ferguson, a group of demonstrators mobbed a police car, throwing rocks and knocking out its windows, prompting a group of officers in riot gear to advance. Sounds of gunshots briefly caused police to take cover behind their vehicles.

A Walgreens drugstore was set alight, as were several other businesses including a Little Caesars pizza parlor. Television images showed smoke seeping from an auto parts store. Two police cruisers were burned.

“They need to understand that when you put your son in the ground, that’s a pain that you can never overcome,” said Paulette Wilkes, a 40-year-old teacher’s assistant. “People are trying to process it. I think once they process it they will continue to burn and loot because they’re angry.”

In nearby University City, a police officer was shot in the arm on Monday evening, although St. Louis County police said it may not be related to the unrest in Ferguson.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called up the National Guard ahead of the announcement to protect against the kind of rioting that flared in the weeks after Brown was shot and killed. The Federal Aviation Administration issued temporary flight restrictions for the city on Monday.

Some activists described the decision to preemptively activate the guard as unnecessarily heavy-handed, particularly following complaints that police inflamed crowds in August by responding in a heavily militarized posture with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The grand jury, with nine white and three black members, began meeting in late August and heard evidence that included witnesses called by the prosecution as well as a private pathologist hired by the Brown family to review the shooting. Nine jurors needed to agree to bring charges.

“They determined that no probable cause exists to file any charge against officer Wilson,” St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch told reporters in Clayton, Missouri, where the grand jury met.

McCulloch declined to say if the jury’s decision was unanimous, noting that grand jury proceedings are completely secret and that only the jury members themselves know the details of the proceedings.

FEDERAL PROBE

A federal probe into the shooting is continuing, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized in a statement that the Justice Department investigators had not yet reached any conclusions.

“Though we have shared information with local prosecutors during the course of our investigation, the federal inquiry has been independent of the local one from the start, and remains so now. Even at this mature stage of the investigation, we have avoided prejudging any of the evidence,” he said.

McCulloch described a tangled mass of conflicting testimony from 60 witnesses about what happened during the incident that led to Brown’s death, but said much of it did not square with the physical evidence.

“Many of the same witnesses acknowledged that they did not see the shooting,” McCulloch said. “The grand jury worked tirelessly to examine and reexamine the testimony of all the witnesses and all the physical evidence.”

Lawyers for Brown’s family say the teen was trying to surrender when he was shot, while Wilson’s supporters say the officer feared for his life and opened fire in self-defense.

Witnesses disagreed on whether Brown’s hands were up at the time he was shot, McCulloch said, adding that Wilson shot at Brown 12 times. The final shot hit Brown in the top of his head.

Brown is suspected of having stolen cigars from a nearby convenience store shortly before the incident. He and a friend had been walking down the middle of the street when Wilson approached them. Police said in August that Wilson was not aware of the robbery at the time.

(Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis, Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Fiona Ortiz in Chicago, Sascha Brodsky and Paul Thomasch in New York, Adrees Latif in Ferguson and Will Dunham in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jim Loney, Will Dunham, Leslie Adler and Alex Richardson)

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