FERGUSON, Mo. – Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew Saturday in a St. Louis suburb where police and protesters have clashed in the week since a black teenager was shot to death by a white police officer.
Nixon said that though many protesters were making themselves heard peacefully, the state would not allow looters to endanger the community where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot in a street. The curfew will run from midnight to 5 a.m. Sunday.
“I am committed to making sure the forces of peace and justice prevail,” Nixon during at a press conference at a church that was interrupted repeatedly by people objecting to the curfew and demanding that the officer who shot Brown be charged with murder.
“We must first have and maintain peace. This is a test. The eyes of the world are watching,” Nixon said.
State statute gives the governor broad powers when he declares a state of emergency, but he hasn’t indicated that he plans to do anything other than impose the curfew and empower the state highway patrol to enforce it.
The curfew announcement came after tensions again flared in Ferguson late Friday. Earlier that day, local police identified the officer who shot Brown as Darren Wilson and released documents and video footage alleging that Brown had robbed a convenience store just before he was shot. Police said Wilson was unaware Brown was a suspect when he encountered him walking with a friend.
Nixon said the U.S. Department of Justice is intensifying its civil rights investigation of the shooting.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is in charge of security in Ferguson, said 40 FBI agents were going door-to-door in the neighbourhood starting Saturday, talking to people who might have seen or have information about the shooting.
Johnson assured those at the news conference that police would not enforce the curfew with armoured trucks and tear gas but would communicate with protesters and give them ample opportunity to leave. Local officers faced strong criticism earlier in the week for their use of tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters.
“Why is the focus on security and not getting justice? Why is there not an arrest?” one women yelled.
Among the many people shouting questions was Malik Shabazz, the president of Black Lawyers for Justice, who said that members of his group and the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam had been helping to maintain order and deter protesters from violence.
“It seems to be a tight curfew line that could be a prescription for confrontation,” said Shabazz, who asked unsuccessfully that the curfew’s start be delayed by an hour.
Brown’s death ignited several days of clashes with furious protesters. Tensions eased Thursday after Nixon turned oversight of the protests over to the Missouri Highway Patrol. But Friday night marked a resurgence of unrest.
On Saturday, some residents said it appeared the violent acts were being committed by people who came from other suburbs or states.
“Who would burn down their own backyard?” asked Rebecca McCloud, a local who works with the Sonshine Baptist Church in St. Louis.
On Friday night, Greg Thomas didn’t see the familiar faces of protesters who have taken to the streets each night this week. Instead, he saw new people, younger, more eager for a confrontation with police. The 28-year-old former Marine said he left as quickly as he could when he heard people talking about getting their handguns.
“There’s three agendas out there,” Thomas said. “People who want to party, people who want to be martyrs and get killed by police, and the people here to protest.”
Johnson said one tear gas canister was deployed Friday night after the group of rioters became unruly and several officers got trapped and injured.
Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, is a six-year police veteran who had no previous complaints against him, the local police chief has said.
The Ferguson Police Department has refused to say anything about Wilson’s whereabouts, and Associated Press reporters were unable to contact him.
Wilson has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting. St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch said it could be weeks before the investigation ends.