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Tear Gas Again Clouds Ferguson As Protesters Ignore Curfew; Officials Condemn Vandalism

Police in Ferguson fired tear gas to disperse protest crowds Sunday night. 05/31/20
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Police in Ferguson fired tear gas to disperse protest crowds Sunday night.

Updated at 10 a.m., June 1 with information about arrests and police injuries

Demonstrations on Sunday continued throughout the St. Louis area over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and turned chaotic in Ferguson for a second straight night.

Police fired tear gas canisters to break up a group of several dozen protesters after some members of the crowd lobbed fireworks and water bottles at officers holding riot shields and batons outside the Ferguson Police Department headquarters. Boards covered many of the station’s windows, which protesters smashed the night before with baseball bats and rocks.

The protests continued for hours after an 8 p.m. curfew imposed by Ferguson Mayor James Knowles’ state of emergency declaration. 

After clearing protesters near the police station, officers and the crowd had another standoff near a slew of businesses on South Florissant Road. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reportedthat people smashed windows of the Ferguson Brewing Company and toppleda portable traffic signal.

Tracy Panus with the St. Louis County Police Department said her department made six arrests in Ferguson. She also said two officers suffered minor injuries. One officer was injured by a firework and another was hit by a rock. Both, she said, were treated on scene.

Panus also said a police vehicle sustained damage after being hit by a Molotov cocktail.

Protests also took place Sunday in Richmond Heights, where protesters blocked the road in front of the St. Louis Galleria mall on Sunday evening. In the Metro East, hundreds gathered in the afternoon in Edwardsville to protest in front of the Madison County government building.

Demonstrators kneel in front of police officers at a protest in Ferguson on May 31, 2020.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Demonstrators kneel in front of police officers outside the Ferguson Police Department headquarters Sunday.

Floyd's death has set off demonstrations across the nation. A video showed that Floyd, who was black, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for at least seven minutes. The officer was fired last week and charged with murder and manslaughter on Friday. 

Hundreds marched through downtown St. Louis Friday night, through Clayton and University City on Saturday afternoon and protests continued in Ferguson late into that evening.

Some demonstrators said they came to Ferguson on Sunday to push for policy change around law enforcement and to show solidarity with Floyd. 

“I think that it’s not fair that we as black people have to continually go through this and not see any real change,” said Lauryn Hudson, who lives in the Ferguson-Florissant area. “And I want to make sure that I’m a part of making that change happen.”

Latoya Smith, of St. Louis, said she came to express outrage over Floyd’s death — and the killings of other black people by police officers.

“We’re just tired of this killing that’s going on — you know, killing us like we’re dogs and slaves. That stuff should be over with,” Smith said. “We just want to live our life and be happy.”

Ferguson holds resonance for people driven to demonstrate for police accountability. The city was the site of mass protests in 2014 after an officer with the city's police force shot and killed Michael Brown. The 18-year-old’s death became a rallying cry for people demanding an overhaul of how law enforcement treats African Americans — and brought about major changes to the north St. Louis County municipality.

Since Brown’s death, more African Americans have been elected to the Ferguson City Council, and black applicants were hired to key positions including police chief and city clerk. The city also signed a federal consent decree to adopt changes to its police department and city government.

Ferguson resident Nick Kasoff said that despite those steps, not everybody in the city feels like a lot has changed since Brown’s death. 

“I think the perception that things haven’t changed much is a real one,” Kasoff said. “On the other hand, as some people have said, things don’t change in a year or two. And I think if we haven’t reached a destination, maybe we’ve inched toward it.”

Protesters broke several windows of the Ferguson Police Department building was vandalized on Saturday. 05/31/20
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters broke several windows of the Ferguson Police Department building on Saturday.

‘Take the focus off the real issue’

Sunday’s protests came as some elected officials were sharply criticizing people for damaging buildings in Ferguson and drawing attention from demonstrators pushing for policy change.

One of the people conveying that message was St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, who served on the Ferguson City Council before his landmark election in 2018. Bell is the first African American to serve as the county’s top prosecutor. He won election on the wave of a multi-racial voting coalition that has transformed the landscape of St. Louis County politics.

“I think it’s important that we don’t conflate what happened here,” Bell said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “You have protesters all over the country, not just in this region, who are bringing light to an issue … that a light needs to be shined on. And then you have others who come later with their own agendas and I think it’s just so important that we don’t conflate those two issues.”

State Rep. Raychel Proudie, a Democrat who represents Ferguson in the Missouri House, questioned why people damaged property in a predominantly black city — yet didn’t do so in largely white Clayton. 

And commenting on a photograph of a white man wielding a hammer near the Ferguson police station, state Sen. Brian Williams, who grew up in the city, tweeted: “I am willing to bet he is still ALIVE and his neighborhood police department is safe and sound.”

Bell called the damage to the Ferguson Police Department “heartbreaking,” noting that the people that recently led that agency sought to mandate big changes.

“These are people who are not your typical chiefs in the sense that they’re just sitting in their office and sending out orders,” Bell said. “They get out in the streets. They get out and talk to people. They get out and build relationships. And so, the changes that have been made when I was here and even since then, I think this takes away from that progress being made. The emphasis on community policing and not just from a policy standpoint, but down to individual officers right here in Ferguson and even around the region. 

“And so, again it’s sad, and we’ll get through this somehow,” he added.

Protesters walk across South Florissant Road on May 31, 2020.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters march down South Florissant Road on Sunday.

Election on Tuesday

The protests in Ferguson are taking place shortly before voters there are to elect a new mayor.

Two council members, Heather Robinett and Ella Jones, are seeking to succeed James Knowles, Ferguson’s top elected leader. Knowles is barred from running again by term limits.

The election is taking place under highly unusual circumstances. It was moved from April 7 to June 2 due to coronavirus concerns. And it comes as an unprecedented number of people in St. Louis County have requested absentee ballots.

Both Jones and Robinett say they’ve used alternatives to going door-to-door to get their message out. Robinett said she’s using live phone banking to connect with voters, while Jones has been using social media and the video chat app Zoom to get the word out about her campaign.

No matter who prevails on Tuesday, Ferguson will experience a milestone: It will be the first time a woman has held the office of mayor. And if Jones wins, she’ll be the first African American to hold the post.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Reporters Corinne Ruff and Marissanne Lewis-Thompson contributed to this story. 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

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