Passions still inflamed but Ferguson starts to calm

Protesters shout slogans at an intersection in Ferguson, Missouri, on Nov 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Protesters shout slogans at an intersection in Ferguson, Missouri, on Nov 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

FERGUSON (AFP) - The streets of Ferguson were decidedly calmer Wednesday after two days of nationwide protests against the decision not to prosecute a white policeman who shot dead an unarmed black teenager.

Just a few dozen protesters and clergy braved rain and light snow to protest outside the police department in the St Louis suburb, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed on August 9.

A Missouri grand jury decided Monday not to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson, who fired the fatal shots - a move that inspired coast-to-coast anger in the United States as well as a rally across the Atlantic in London.

The simmering fury led a small group of protesters to attempt to storm St Louis city hall earlier in the day. After they were rebuffed, extra police and a National Guard Humvee were drafted to protect the building.

In Ferguson late Wednesday, the group of mostly young people - bundled up against the cold - shouted, "This is what democracy looks like." One or two taunted and swore at the 50 National Guard in riot gear who stood on duty at the police department.

Witnesses said police took one person into custody.

Earlier in the day, volunteer clean-up crews swept the streets of Ferguson, where angry crowds on Monday torched businesses and looted stores.

Heavy security - police, state troopers and National Guard troops - was still visible in the streets Wednesday, but the situation was stabilising. Already, Tuesday night did not see the scale of destruction that followed Monday's decision.

"I think generally it was a much better night," St Louis County police chief Jon Belmar told reporters, despite a police car having been set on fire and more businesses having been attacked.

Many thousands of people on Tuesday joined demonstrations in dozens of cities - a relatively rare occurrence in America, and evidence that the case has struck a raw nerve in race relations.

In Britain, where thousands of sympathisers angered by Brown's treatment marched in London chanting the same slogan: "Hands up, don't shoot." "We need to send a message to Mike Brown's family," said Carol Duggan, the aunt of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man whose shooting by British police in 2011 sparked riots in London.

US civil rights leaders have called for more protests on Saturday.

Similar rallies were held last year after the acquittal on murder charges of neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who shot dead another unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin, in Florida.

Another case in Cleveland, Ohio - that of a 12-year-old black boy shot dead by police at the weekend while carrying a replica gun - seemed certain to stoke racial tensions inflamed by Brown's death.

Surveillance video released Wednesday showed that the boy, Tamir Rice, was shot within seconds of the patrol car arriving on the scene.

In Ferguson, where the National Guard presence was tripled to 2,200 on Tuesday in a bid to quell violence, residents said on the eve of Thanksgiving that they hoped looting and arson would stop.

Karen Gold, who owns a shop selling repurposed furniture and handmade items from local artists near the Ferguson city hall, painted festive scenes on her boarded-up shop front. "Thanksgiving is tomorrow and I hope we can pull together as a community," Gold, who is white, told AFP.

"I want to move on from this." Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, told CBS News that they hoped protests would remain peaceful. "We continue to ask for calm," McSpadden said.

Brown's parents however had harsher words for Wilson, who had said Tuesday he had a "clean conscience" about the shooting.

The grand jury found that Wilson had shot Brown in self-defense after an altercation. A total of 12 shots were fired.

In his first televised comments since the incident, Wilson told ABC News he had feared for his life during the confrontation, believing Brown was attempting to wrestle his gun away from him. "I don't think it's haunting. It's always going to be something that happened," he said, adding that his conscience was clear because "I know I did my job right."

A visibly emotional McSpadden said on NBC's "Today" show that Wilson's remarks added "insult after injury" and were "so disrespectful." His father, Michael Brown Sr., said on NBC he felt the officer's version of events was "crazy." "For one, my son, he respected law enforcement," Brown said. "Two, who in their right mind would rush or charge at a police officer that has his gun drawn? It sounds crazy."

The August shooting of Brown sparked weeks of protest and a debate about race relations and military-style police tactics.