By Julissa Catalan
Racial tensions erupted in a predominantly Black St. Louis suburb when a peaceful vigil quickly turned violent, with shots fired and widespread looting.
On Saturday night, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer. The teenager was reportedly unarmed and standing only 35 feet away from the officer, who shot him multiple times from his police car.
While witnesses on the scene say that Brown had his hands in the air at the time of the shooting, authorities say that the teenager instigated the confrontation by pushing the officer back in the car when he attempted to get out and that he tried to reach into the car for the officer’s gun.
Ferguson’s population of 21,000 people is 70 percent Black.
During what started out as a peaceful vigil to remember Brown, looting and vandalism took over the streets, resulting in 32 arrests in connection with the looting of 12 different stores. One store was nearly burnt to the ground.
According to Antonio French, a St. Louis Alderman, a local QuickTrip convenience store was robbed and vandalized and an ATM was dragged out of the store.
“This QuikTrip is where things started [Saturday] with this case, based on various accounts,” French said. Brown and a friend were “accused of stealing gum from the store or some sort of cigarettes,” the alderman said.
According to KDSK, the NBC affiliate in St. Louis, 300 officers from 19 different jurisdictions responded to the violent protest, with two officers suffering minor injuries. One officer was reportedly hit by a brick and another injured his knee.
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, attended the vigil on Sunday and was interviewed by multiple reporters. She said on CNN:
“You took my son away from me! You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate You know how many Black men graduate Not many! Because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel they don’t got nothing to live for anyway! [They feel] they gonna try to take me out anyway!”
McSpadden later stated that the police told her that Brown had been shot eight times, although the department has not publicly released that information.
Hundreds who protested chanted, “No justice, no peace!”
“Obviously, the events of last night are not indicative of who we are,” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles told CNN, adding that the chaos that erupted was “not constructive” and was only “bringing down the community.”
“Last night, everything lost control,” Knowles added.
While St. Louis police have been called in to perform an independent investigation, the FBI has also officially opened an investigation of its own.
Special Agent Cheryl Mimura, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s St. Louis office, said the bureau has been keeping an eye on the case since Saturday.
“We’ve been reviewing the matter, and today we officially opened an investigation into a potential civil-rights violation,” she said, noting that the decision was not motivated by community outrage. “Regardless of the media attention or the public’s attention to this matter, this is something that we would routinely do.”
John Gaskin, of the St. Louis County NAACP, referenced the racially charged 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch organizer who was subsequently acquitted of murder, and the recent death of Eric Garner, a New York man who died from a police chokehold after he was confronted on suspicion of selling individual cigarettes.
“With the recent events of a young man killed by the police in New York City and with Trayvon Martin and with all the other African-American young men that have been killed by police officers this is a dire concern to the NAACP, especially our local organization,” Gaskin said.
The officer who shot Brown has been placed on paid administrative leave.
“I personally know the good people that live and work in this community,” she told DiversityInc. “What transpired on August 9 and 10 is not an accurate reflection of the majority of people in this community.”
“However, even in a community of good people, feelings of disenfranchisement, disconnection and disrespect can ferment and grow when conversations, connections and outreach does not happen among its people. Violence does not solve this problem.”
“It appears that Dr. Martin Luther King was able to foresee the events in Ferguson when he said ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new more complicated ones.'”