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Johnson Pleads For Peace After Ferguson Demonstrations Flare Up

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

After protests in Ferguson flared up overnight, Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson says he’s ready to use the riot gear that became a staple of the August demonstrations over Michael Brown’s death.

But Johnson said he’s not willing to place automatically a larger police presence on West Florissant Avenue, adding that he’s monitoring the situation on a “day-by-day” basis.

Johnson addressed the media in Weldon Spring today after a particularly confrontational night between protesters and police. He emphasized, though, that the crowd Tuesday night was smaller than in August, when hundreds of people would flood the streets almost nightly to protest Brown’s death.

Tensions were running especially high on Tuesday after a memorial for Michael Brown burned down. In fact, some protest leaders told St. Louis Public Radio last night that they had expected a tough night after Brown’s memorial burned down.(Johnson said the investigation into that situation is ongoing and that the incident “could have” revived the protests.) 

In this heightened atmosphere, Johnson said, vandals broke the window of a West Florissant Avenue beauty shop and attempted to steal its cash register. He also said a small fire erupted at a restaurant, and it was put out with a garden hose.

In addition, Johnson said, gunshots were fired near the Canfield Green apartments, the place where Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown. He said five people were arrested throughout the evening, while two St. Louis County officers were injured after being hit with rocks.

One officer, Johnson said, was hit “centimeters below his eyeball and could have awakened this morning blind.”

“Unpeaceful individuals began to flash lights in the eyes of law enforcement, began to shout threatening remarks that continued through the night about shooting police and burning down the town,” Johnson said. “They began to position themselves in close proximity to officers’ personal space, which creates an unsafe environment for officers to defend themselves and to protect others who were out there in a peaceful manner.”

Consequently, he said, “At that time, a decision was made to disperse the crowd.”

While officers from several jurisdictions wore bullet-proof vests, Johnson said they weren’t wearing the riot gear used in August when nightly demonstrations were common on West Florissant Avenue. That could change, he said, if the events of last night replicate themselves.

But Johnson wouldn’t necessarily commit to a bolstered police presence on West Florissant Avenue, adding that he "takes every day as a new day.”

“I don’t think it’s fair for us to go out and show an extreme law enforcement presence when nobody’s done anything,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s fair that our kids ride home in a school bus and they see that for no reason. So once again, we look at every day as a new day and respond accordingly.”

Johnson said that the police were trying to evaluate and adapt to each situation as it arose. “If as law enforcement, if we can say we haven’t done everything perfect – we’re willing to say that and we’re willing to change,” he added. “Change is not like magic where you snap your fingers and it changes all of a sudden. But change happens over time.”

But it's not just up to the police. Johnson called on political and civic leaders involved in the protests to speak out against individuals seeking violent confrontations with police.

“Our officers are committed to this community from day one until the end,” Johnson said. “Starting today, I’m asking that the many coalitions that stated they were for peace will stand publicly. I asked the clergy coalitions that say they stand for peace to stand publicly. The national organizations both civic and activist groups – I ask that you stand publicly."

Finally, said Johnson, “I ask that those political leaders who have stood in Ferguson and watched the behavior of the unpeaceful protestors to stand for the laws you have been elected to uphold.”

Near the end of the press conference, Johnson was asked whether protesters were prepared for the possibility that Wilson won't be indicted. He responded: "The mind of the protesters and what they're prepared for, I don't know." 

"I know right now we have an angry frustration over a multitude of things," he said. "But I do know we've been meeting with groups that are groups within the neighborhood and trying to get that understanding. But I also know that we have a justice system. It's a justice system that guides our nation and guides us."

"So we'll just see what that justice system tells us and how they guide us," he added.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.