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Motorist hits crowd members, pulls gun at Central West End protest

Motorist hits crowd members, pulls gun at Central West End protest

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A man was arrested during protests Wednesday evening in the Central West End after he drove through the crowd and later waved a gun at protesters.

The incident happened during a day of demonstrations that brought protesters to several sites in and around St. Louis.

In the incident Wednesday night, a protest leader said four protesters were hit. A police spokeswoman said nobody was seriously hurt.

The incident happened around 8 p.m., after about 75 protesters gathered in Maryland Plaza and were beginning to lay down for a “die-in” in the street.

As they did, a man driving a Town and Country minivan drove through the intersection and accelerated through the crowd. One woman was seen crouching on the hood of the minivan as the van continued forward. She fell off as the vehicle rounded a curve.

Protesters chased and then surrounded the minivan, and the driver waved a black handgun at them. At one point, protesters broke out the van’s back window. The van was dented, and police recovered a rock from the back seat. Police took the driver, a 57-year-old man, into custody.

Leah Freeman, a police spokeswoman, said it was unclear whether the protesters jumped onto the motorist’s vehicle or if the motorist drove toward the protesters in an attempt to get through the crowd.

Police detained the man Wednesday night but later released him. Police did not identify him. Police are still investigating "due to contradicting statements from the driver and indivuals at the scene."

About 8:30 p.m., the protesters moved on to Chase Park Plaza, where they flooded the lobby, and then briefly shut down the intersection of Lindell Boulevard and Kingshighway. Police stood by. The protesters continued marching through the neighborhood for another hour or so.

Earlier in the evening, five people were arrested downtown in protests over police use of force at the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse.

Dozens of protesters gathered at the entrance of the courthouse, at one point preventing federal workers from leaving.

They also pushed over barricades and blocked nearby rush-hour traffic.

Protests tied to the Michael Brown shooting escalated Wednesday after a grand jury in New York decided to not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the July 17 chokehold death of Eric Garner.

The downtown protest lasted a little more than an hour. Protesters were met by St. Louis police and U.S. marshals.

Protesters vowed to make it hard for employees to leave, telling law enforcement, “If we don’t get to go home, y’all don’t get to go home.”

Prominent protester Elizabeth Vega was among a group blocking the building’s entrances.

“We’re standing in solidarity with Eric Garner,” Vega said, “another black life who clearly doesn’t matter.”

At one point, police and marshals used metal barricades and bicycles to create barriers to hold protesters back and allow courthouse employees to leave.

A number of federal prosecutors and at least one judge left the building then.

A protester jockeying to get closer to the police barricade appeared to fall and make contact with police. The man was arrested and placed in a police van.

Vega also was arrested. Protesters said she had made contact with one of the marshals. Unlike others arrested Wednesday, Vega was ushered into the basement by federal authorities.

Protesters also took to the streets in Clayton. They were led by area clergy affiliated with Metropolitan Congregations United, an ecumenical organization that has been addressing the social and economic issues raised by the events in Ferguson. Police said that clergy and police had worked out arrangements in advance, and that police closed the street to allow the die-in, speeches and chanting.

Joining the Day-Glo orange-vested local pastors were faith leaders from Oakland, Calif.; Pittsburgh; Milwaukee; Buffalo, N.Y., and other cities supporting the regional effort under the banner of Gamaliel, a Chicago-based community organizing coalition.

The group is seeking a post-Ferguson commitment from St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger to bolster community policing, increase minority participation in law enforcement and abolish “debtors prisons” — the incarceration of minority motorists for failure to pay traffic fines.

Carolyn Randazzo, chair of the Education Task Force, was among a group of United Congregations’ representatives that met briefly with Stenger following a Wednesday afternoon County Council meeting that went forward as street demonstrators staged a die-in a few hundred yards away at the Justice Center.

“He seems to be in agreement with us,” said Randazzo, a Ferguson resident. “It’s important that he’s on board with the solutions.”

Prior commitments forced Stenger to postpone a more in-depth discussion with organizers today.

But he promised to make Ferguson and the issues raised by the United Congregations a top priority when he takes office next month.

“I think St. Louis County through this tragedy has been given a tremendous opportunity to make changes,” Stenger told reporters. “The peaceful protests are the beginning of a dialogue. I think ultimately quieter voices will surface and with that meaningful dialogue. And I’m committed to that process as county executive.”

Robert Patrick, Margaret Gillerman, David Carson and Steve Giegerich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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