FERGUSON, Mo. — At least 31 people were arrested in Ferguson after peaceful protests devolved into another night of chaos. And many of those arrested came from as far away as New York and California, said Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson early Tuesday.
Johnson didn’t provide additional details, but his remark confirmed what many in Ferguson have been saying all along: the protesters who have turned the nightly demonstrations into tense confrontations with heavily armed police officers aren’t local residents.
“I’m telling you, we’re going to make this neighborhood whole,” Johnson said. “And I am not going to let criminals that have come out here from across this country or live in this community define this neighborhood and define what we’re going to do to make it right.”
He has a Herculean task ahead of him.
Chosen by the Gov. Jay Nixon to head up security operation — after Ferguson police was roundly criticized for its heavy-handed approach — Johnson was welcomed last week.
But those sentiments have soured as security forces under his command lob tear gas and stun grenades at rowdy protesters who toss rocks and Molotov cocktails at them.
CNN’s Jake Tapper echoed the frustrations of many in the crowd after the latest encounter Monday night.
“Absolutely there have been looters, absolutely over the last nine days there has been violence, but there is nothing going on in this street right now that merits this scene out of Bagram. Nothing.
“So if people wonder why the people of Ferguson, Missouri, are so upset, this is part of the reason. What is this? This doesn’t make any sense.”
The evening began peacefully Monday.
For almost two hours, police in riot gear formed a barricade and stood watch as hundreds of protesters marched in a single-file line that stretched so long that different parts chanted different slogans.
“Hands up, don’t shoot,” some repeated. “No justice, no peace,” others said. Still others were singing church hymns.
But the scene quickly deteriorated after a handful of protesters threw rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at police. Officers responded by firing stun grenades and tear gas canisters.
Amid the frenzy, the sounds of gunfire rang out from different parts of the city. Police found two people shot within the protest site, Johnson said.
One group of protesters made a barricade with portable toilets and orange cones. Some ripped out street signs, including the symbolic “Do Not Enter” sign.
Armored vehicles rolled down the streets with officers perched atop, their hands steadied on guns. Other officers darted into the protest crowd to make an occasional arrest before retreating.
Johnson said a building and an unoccupied house were set on fire, and that his officers came under “heavy gunfire.”
“We have been criticized for using SWAT trucks during protests. We did not deploy them into crowds until things deteriorated,” he said. “Once again, not a single bullet was fired by officers despite coming under heavy attack.”
To be sure, the rowdy demonstrators were greatly outnumbered by fellow protesters trying to keep the gathering peaceful.
“Get out of the street! Don’t fight!” some protesters bellowed on bullhorns.
Protester Jerrell Bourrage grabbed one of the bottle-hurling demonstrators and told him to stop.
“We don’t need these antagonizers out here. We need people who can stand out here to the side and still let your word be known,” Bourrage told CNN.
“I came to keep my brothers safe. We have fathers, brothers, mothers and aunties out here.”
Many residents believe those causing trouble are from outside Ferguson.
“We are not going to let outside provocateurs to come here. We can’t allow this movement to be destroyed,” said Malik Shabazz, national president of Black Lawyers for Justice. He wouldn’t say who the provocateurs were.
Grand jury proceedings likely
Ferguson has seen protests every night since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by a white police officer 10 days ago.
The situation remains so unstable that the Ferguson-Florissant School District has canceled classes for the rest of the week, and the The Missouri National Guard has been called out by Gov. Jay Nixon to guard police command posts.
A grand jury could begin to hear testimony from witnesses and decide on whether to return an indictment in the case as early as Wednesday.
In addition to that proceeding, the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Brown’s death.
‘Make your voices heard’ – during the day
Johnson, during an early morning news conference, urged demonstrators to protest during the daylight hours Tuesday and not after dark.
“Make your voices heard where you can be seen and you’re not the cover for violent agitators,” he said.
“There is a dangerous dynamic in the night. It allows a small number of agitators to hide in the crowd and then attempt to create chaos.”
Earlier, in an interview with CNN, Johnson added, “This has to stop.”
“It has to stop,” he said about the violence.” I don’t want anybody to get hurt. We have to find a way to stop it.”