FERGUSON, Mo. – Protesters returned to the riot-scarred streets of Ferguson on Tuesday, a day after crowds looted businesses and set fire to buildings in a night of rage against a grand jury’s decision not to indict the white police officer who killed an unarmed black 18-year-old, a case that has inflamed racial tensions in the U.S.
But with hundreds of additional National Guard state militia assisting police, the latest demonstrations had far less of the chaos and destruction that erupted after Monday’s grand jury announcement. However, officers still used some tear gas and pepper spray, and protesters set a squad car on fire and broke windows at City Hall.
Earlier Tuesday, Missouri’s governor ordered hundreds more state militia into Ferguson after a night of violent protests over a grand jury decision’s not to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 killing of Michael Brown.
Attorneys for Brown’s family criticized the grand jury’s decision as rigged but appealed for peace. Wilson, in his first public comments, defended his actions, insisting on national television that he could not have done anything differently in the confrontation with Brown.
The decision announced Thursday night means Wilson faces no state criminal charges in the Aug. 9 shooting, which reignited debates over relations between police and minority communities, even in cities far from Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where Brown was killed.
In the aftermath of Monday’s violence, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon more than tripled the number of National Guard soldiers sent to Ferguson, ordering the initial force of 700 to be increased to 2,200 in hopes that their presence would help local law enforcement keep order.
“Lives and property must be protected,” Nixon said. “This community deserves to have peace.”
National Guard units protected the Ferguson Police Department and left crowd control, arrests and use of tear gas to local officers.
Outside police headquarters, one woman was taken into custody after protesters hurled what appeared to be smoke bombs, flares and frozen water bottles at a line of officers. Several other protesters were arrested after defying police instructions to get out of the street or out of the way of police vehicles.
As a crowd of protesters dispersed early Wednesday, some threw rocks through the windows of a muffler shop and a used-car dealership, near a painted mural that read “Peace for Ferguson.”
Some streets that had been overrun the previous night were deserted, except for the occasional police cruiser or National Guard vehicle. Guard crews stood watch in empty parking lots.
Other large demonstrations were held across the U.S. for a second day. Hundreds of Seattle high school students walked out of classes, and several hundred people marched down a Cleveland freeway ramp to block rush-hour traffic. In New York, thousands of people marched for a second night in Manhattan, gathering in Union Square before splitting into several smaller groups, chanting “No justice, No peace.”
New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said police were giving protesters “breathing room” to demonstrate as long as they remain nonviolent.
About 300 people marched from a park to the St. Louis courthouse, chanting “You didn’t indict. We shall fight.” Police used pepper spray and arrested several demonstrators who blocked major intersections in St. Louis.
During an interview with ABC News, Wilson said he has a clean conscience because “I know I did my job right.”
Wilson, 28, had been with the Ferguson police force for less than three years before the Aug. 9 shooting. He told ABC that Brown’s shooting was the first time he fired his gun on the job.
Asked whether the encounter would have unfolded the same way if Brown had been white, Wilson said yes.
The officer said in his jury testimony that feared for his life during his confrontation with Brown, which he blamed on the big teenager, saying the theft suspect reached through his driver’s side window, hit him in the face, called him a “pussy” and tried grabbing his gun. Wilson then got off a shot that went through Brown’s hand, the only bullet that hit Brown at close range.
Wilson told ABC he felt like it was his duty to chase Brown after the confrontation at his police vehicle. When asked about witness accounts that Brown at one point turned toward Wilson and put his hands up, he responded “that would be incorrect.” Brown fell to the ground about 153 feet (46 metres) from Wilson’s vehicle, fatally wounded by the last of the seven bullets that struck his body.
Public attention to the killing has frequently focused on the fact that Brown was unarmed. But whether or not Brown had a weapon makes little difference under Missouri law, which says police can act with deadly force when they believe it is necessary to arrest a person who may “endanger life or inflict serious physical injury.”
During Monday’s protests, 12 commercial buildings in Ferguson burned down, and firefighters responded to blazes at eight others, fire officials said. Other businesses were looted, and 12 vehicles were torched.
President Barack Obama deplored the destructive acts, saying they are criminal and those responsible should be prosecuted. But America’s first black president said he understands that many people are upset by the grand jury decision.
“The frustrations that we’ve seen are not about a particular incident. They have deep roots in many communities of colour who have a sense that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly or fairly,” Obama said.
White House officials are still considering whether Obama should travel to Ferguson, weighing the importance of the moment with the risk of inflaming tensions.
Attorneys for Brown’s family stressed that those setting fires and engaging in violence were not on Brown’s side.
But they said the grand jury process was rigged from the start to clear the white officer. They criticized everything from the types of evidence St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch presented to the jury to the way it was presented and the timing of the grand jury’s decision. Attorney Anthony Gray suggested McCulloch presented some testimony, including from witnesses who did not see the shooting, to discredit the process.
Attorneys for Brown’s family said they hope an ongoing federal civil rights investigation leads to charges. But federal investigations of police misconduct face a steep legal standard, requiring proof that an officer willfully violated a victim’s civil rights. That is a high bar especially considering the wide latitude given to police officers in using deadly force.
Testimony from Wilson that he felt threatened, and physical evidence almost certainly complicates any efforts to seek federal charges.
The Justice Department has also launched a broad probe into the Ferguson Police Department, looking for patterns of discrimination.
Regardless of the outcome of the federal investigations, Brown’s family also could file a wrongful-death civil lawsuit against Wilson.
Salter reported from St. Louis. Associated Press writers Alan Scher Zagier in Clayton, Andale Gross and Jim Suhr in Ferguson and Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.