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Capt. Johnson asks for protesters in Ferguson to stand up for peace after violent night

Capt. Johnson asks for protesters in Ferguson to stand up for peace after violent night

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FERGUSON • After a night in Ferguson that again turned violent after weeks of relative calm, the Missouri Highway Patrol captain in charge of security in the area called on peaceful protesters to take a more active role.

"Today I am asking the many coalitions who stated they were for peace to stand publicly," Capt. Ronald S. Johnson said at a press conference Wednesday morning. "I ask those political leaders who have stood in Ferguson and watched the behaviors of unpeaceful protesters to stand."

The press conference followed a night where some protesters turned violent. Windows were smashed at one shop and protesters attempted to loot it, Johnson said. A fire was believed set at another business. Rocks and bricks were thrown at police at one point, and two officers were injured, Johnson said. A rock hit one officer just centimeters below his eye.

Shots were fired near officers, including Johnson, who said he saw the muzzle flash near the weapon. No one was reported shot.

Four adults and one juvenile were arrested overnight, he said. They were accused of assault, inciting a riot or failure to disperse.

"We cannot have nights like last night," Johnson said Wednesday, flanked by other law enforcement leaders at a press conference in Weldon Spring. "We can't have actions like last night that can result in injury or death. Those will not be tolerated." 

Johnson said he the rhetoric he heard among some protesters Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning was about violence and looting. He said the coalition leaders told him privately that that's not the message they endorse.

"I'm asking them to say that in public," he said.

It's not clear what sparked the more violent protest after several weeks of relatively calmer gatherings. A fire on Tuesday morning destroyed one of two memorials to Michael Brown on Canfield Drive, near the site where he was shot on Aug. 9 by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. People gathered and rebuilt the memorial Tuesday morning, but many were angry and believed it had been intentionally set by someone.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said intelligence suggested some of the violence "was initiated by misinformation about the fire at one of the Michael Brown memorials."

Tuesday night, windows were smashed at Beauty Town, on West Florissant Avenue not far from Canfield Drive, and looters attempted to take the cash register, Johnson said. Protesters gathered shortly afterward, reaching as many as 200 about 10:30 p.m.

Police officials, including Johnson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, went to the scene. The crowd eventually dwindled to about 50 to 75 shortly before midnight. A line of about a dozen police faced the remaining protesters.

Juan Santos, manager of Beauty Town, said this was the third time the store has been broken into since the fatal Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Brown touched off protests and, at times, looting.

Santos said the windows had been replaced just a week ago at a cost of $1,300. He got the boards from the basement and put them back on the newly smashed windows, saying he "will probably leave them up for a while now."

Some Ferguson police in the area were wearing their new body cameras, but some were not. When asked, some said they had been on duty with their cameras on for as much as 20 hours and the batteries had died.

The Ferguson Fire Department received a call about 11:20 p.m. Tuesday about a small fire outside the Whistle Stop custard shop and Depot Museum at the Ferguson Depot on Carson Road near South Florissant Road. Fire Capt. Jeremy Corcoran said Ferguson police used a garden hose attached to the building to put out the flames before the firefighters arrived. Firefighters took over to make sure the blaze was out

Corcoran said the fire originated at an outside corner of the building. He said there was a strong smell of gasoline, and based on that and where the fire was located, he suspects it was intentionally set. The St. Louis County bomb and arson squad has been called to investigate, he said. 

Police began clearing the street about 12:15 a.m. Wednesday along West Florissant. Some protesters threw bottles at police as they were being moved north on West Florissant toward Canfield Drive. Flashlights were aimed at officers' eyes so they couldn't see clearly as some in the crowd shouted threats about burning businesses and shooting police.

The entrance to the Canfield Green apartments was blocked off, and about 12:50 a.m. police begin leaving the scene. Then someone fired about six shots from a building roughly 150 yards from the entrance to the apartments. No one was hit, and police did not go into the cordoned-off area to pursue the shooter.

Johnson said he, Belmar and Dotson all were nearby and took cover.

"We saw the muzzle flash come from the weapon," he said.

Ferguson police reported several other calls for shots fired and small fires overnight.

Johnson has said in the past that he believes much of the unrest in Ferguson has been caused by outside agitators. "Last night, many were residents of Ferguson," he said.

The message he heard from the crowd, Johnson said, "was about hate ... It was about looting."

Police wore bulletproof vests but not riot gear and other equipment that has been criticized as the "militarization" of police because the situation escalated suddenly, Johnson said. That might change in the face of physical threats, he said.

"I will promise the spouses, the family members and the kids, we will do everything to protect your loved ones who wear this uniform," he said.

But at a different point, he said he takes each day as it comes. "I woke up today and there's no signs we need to do anything different than we did last night."

Johnson said he's dedicated to protecting the rights of people to peacefully protest, but said the "unpeaceful" can't be allowed to harm people or damage property. He said police would pull those people out of the crowd and asked the peaceful to be aware of that.

Speaking about the fire at the Michael Brown memorial Tuesday morning, Johnson said he doesn't know how it started and that firefighters are investigating.

"The unpeaceful protesters who were attempting to say this was law enforcement's fault, that law enforcement didn't put it out ... It started out rather small. Someone could have gone in a home and pulled out a cup of water, a pot of water, to put it out," Johnson said. "Instead they stood there for 11 minutes watching it burn until police got there, and ran door to door saying police started this fire."

He said he doesn't believe a law enforcement officer would have started it.

He responded to a question about a "I am Darren Wilson" wristband an officer was reportedly wearing and said he would talk to the various police departments involved in Ferguson about the report.

"I think that that was not a statement of law enforcement, that wearing of that was an individual statement," Johnson said of the report.

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Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Related to this story

Clashes with police flared up in Ferguson after a tense day. In the early morning, a memorial to Michael Brown burned. One local shop, Beauty …

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