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On Night One Of Ferguson Curfew, Shots Fired, One Person In Critical Condition

Stephanie Lecci
St. Louis Public Radio

One man is in critical condition from a gunshot wound after a group of protesters in Ferguson defied the curfew imposed at midnight Saturday.

Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson said police used smoke canisters and finally tear gas to disperse the group so that they could reach the gunshot victim. Johnson said the victim was found near the burned QuikTrip gas station that has become a staging area for many of the protests over the past week.

Protesters transported the victim to the hospital in their own vehicle, Johnson said.

Police arrested seven demonstrators and charged them with failure to disperse, a class C misdemeanor in  Missouri. Johnson said shots were also fired at a police car, but officers were not able to apprehend the shooter.

Earlier Saturday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon proclaimed a state of emergency in Ferguson, clearing the way to impose a curfew between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. Police blocked off two ends of West Florissant Avenue, the business district that has sustained the majority of the looting over the past week.

Building tension

For much of Saturday evening, sidewalks were filled with demonstrators, but tensions ran high. Many expressed concerns that there would be violence as night fell or that police would enforce the curfew with force.

“I’ve been out here for the past five days. I’ve already been tear gassed and hit by rubber bullets. I’m going to come back out in the morning,” said Lynn Morrison of neighboring Florissant. She said she didn’t anticipate the protests ending any time soon.

“The passion for this cause is very high. I don’t know if we’re going to go back to normal, or if this is our new normal,” Morrison said around 10 p. m.

Police stood outside businesses on West Florissant as the night grew late. Most protestors left by 11:30 p.m.
Credit Stephanie Lecci / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Police stood outside businesses on West Florissant as the night grew late. Most protesters left by 11:30 p.m.

Most protesters cleared the area in advance of the midnight deadline. Only a handful of protesters and journalists remained past curfew, as a group convened around a boarded-up barbecue restaurant called Red the BBQ Man.

“No justice, no curfew!” they chanted, holding their hands in the air amid the flashes from cameras.  

Police requested that reporters leave the curfew zone but did allow them to stay at a staging area at West Florissant and Ferguson. From there, television stations broadcast images of police in gas masks moving slowly toward the crowd at Red's.

At about 12:40 a.m. Sunday, police began launching tear gas at a crowd just north of the staging area on West Florissant. Shortly before firing the gas, they warned protesters to disperse or face arrest. 

Imposition of curfew

Nixon announced the curfew earlier Saturday along with Johnson and several other officials during a tumultuous news conference at Greater St. Mark Family Church. Nixon has put Johnson and the highway patrol in charge of maintaining order in Ferguson, which has been at the center of unrest since a police shooting last Saturday killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

"The tragic shooting death of Michael Brown one week ago today – and the events that followed – left family grieving the loss of a son, a community wracked by fear and unrest, and an entire world looking for answers and justice," Nixon said.

But the governor said, "If we are going to achieve justice, we must first have – and maintain – peace."

From the audience, some residents shouted questions that challenged how the investigation of Brown's death has been handled.  Their concern was less on looting and more on what they viewed as a lack of justice.

Others said they were ready to help keep order in Ferguson, where looting early Saturday morning marred hours of what had been peaceful protests Friday night.

Johnson and Nixon said the curfew was needed because of a few lawbreakers who marred peaceful protests.

"I share their frustration and their conviction that we cannot allow the ill will of the few to undermine the good will of the many, while putting the people and businesses of this community in danger," the governor said. "If there was an easy way to separate those who hurt from those who help, we would. But it’s hard, and especially at night we can’t."

Nixon said the curfew would continue until nightly order has been restored. The boundaries of the curfew were not immediately clear; a spokesman for the governor's office said the specifics would be left up to the Highway Patrol.

Credit Stephanie Lecci / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Timothy Booker said he would leave if police told him to, but hangs flag upside down because he says that's how the justice system is.

Nixon said the situation was a test of whether the cycle of fear can be broken, in Ferguson and in general. "The eyes of the world are watching," he said.

Protests on Friday were peaceful "except for a very few" people, Nixon said.

Statements of officials were interrupted several times with questions and statements shouted from the audience. U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, at one point said he agreed with some of the concerns expressed, including concerns about the St. Louis County prosecutor's office.

Earlier Saturday, county Prosecutor Robert McCulloch told St. Louis Public Radio that a grand jury would begin to meet about the case "in days" — before the investigation is complete — and would be expected to continue for some time as more evidence comes in.

Members of the National Lawyers Guild and Amnesty International have been active as legal observers. A group from Amnesty has conducted training for nonviolent direct response tactics. The USA executive director of Amnesty, Steven Hawkins, released a statement condemning the curfew Sunday:

“It’s hard to build trust if the governor doesn’t meet with community members and restricts their movements with a curfew,” Hawkins wrote. “We criticize dictators for quelling dissent and silencing protestors with tactics like curfews … The people of Ferguson have the right to protect peacefully the lack of accountability for Michael Brown's shooting.”

Edited at 7:15 a.m. to correct time frame of curfew.