FERGUSON, Mo. — The FBI on Monday opened a civil rights inquiry into the fatal shooting by a police officer of an unarmed black teenager here as protests bubbled into a third night in this St. Louis suburb.
Officers donned riot gear and warily faced off against hundreds of people in response to looting and violence Sunday night that resulted in 32 arrests.
On Monday night, police officers using tear gas and rubber bullets tried to disperse the crowd of mostly African Americans, who had been gathering through the day under the hot sun. Protesters covered their mouths with scarves and T-shirts to avoid the tear gas.
The standoff lasted for more than an hour, with about a dozen men approaching officers with their hands up saying, “Don’t shoot me.”
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At least 100 police officers were on the scene, shining bright lights into the crowd and telling people to return to their homes.
The protesters questioned the role that race — and simmering tensions between residents and the Police Department — may have played in the killing of Michael Brown, 18, who was to start college this week.
Officials have so far declined to identify the police officer who shot Brown or disclose his race. The officer was put on administrative leave.
“You have to begin with the frustration,” said one of the protesters, Wayne Bledsoe of St. Louis. “Treatment of these communities is not equal. In white communities, the police truly protect and serve. In black communities, that is not the case.”
Ferguson, a city of 21,000 northwest of St. Louis, has shifted substantially over the last decade, with blacks, once a minority, now making up two-thirds of the residents, after many white families moved out to surrounding suburbs.
The town’s leadership and the police have remained predominantly white.
In 2013, the suspension of a black superintendent of schools by an all-white school board stirred protests. And the Justice Department has a continuing investigation into racial disparities in legal representation for juveniles in family court.
“The community is still highly segregated,” said Karen Knodt, interim pastor of the Immanuel United Church of Christ, whose congregation has 800 members, only four of which are black. “The institutions of power don’t yet reflect the changing demographics of the county.”
At a news conference Monday, Jon Belmar, the St. Louis County police chief, who said his department was asked by the Ferguson police to take over the investigation of the shooting, pleaded for the public’s patience.
“I understand that the public has a right to be skeptical, and I appreciate that and I would expect that the public be skeptical oftentimes of government or some forms of it,” he said.
“But I would also ask the public to be reasonable, because it takes a long time to make sure we do this investigation the right way,” Belmar said.
On social media, reaction to Brown’s killing was fierce, with many accusing the police of again shooting an unarmed black youth.
It included a Twitter campaign called “IfTheyGunnedMeDown” prompted by a photograph of Brown that was used in some news stories about his killing.
In the photo, Brown is shown with fingers of his right hand extended in what some considered a peace sign, while others called it a gang sign.
Brown’s parents said at a news conference that he was nonviolent and good-natured and would have objected to the looting.
Their lawyer, Benjamin Crump, compared the case to another one in which he represented the family of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black unarmed youth shot to death in Florida two years ago by a neighborhood-watch coordinator.
“We need justice for our son,” said Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., as his lawyer asked witnesses to step forward with testimony or videotape.
“If any of you have information, please give it to us,” Brown said. “We don’t want no violence.”
“Because Michael wouldn’t want no violence,” said Lesley McSpadden, his mother, weeping.
The circumstances of Brown’s death Saturday afternoon as he and a friend walked from a convenience store were disputed. The police said he had hit the officer who shot him; his family and friends denied that.
In a local television interview, the friend who was walking with him, Dorian Johnson, said the officer opened fire when the young men refused to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk. He said Brown’s hands were over his head.
The autopsy showed Brown was shot a number of times.
The Ferguson police said they do not have videotapes running in their patrol cars.
Residents said they were shaken by the unrest that swept the town Sunday night, bringing 500 officers to the streets.
One school district nearby canceled classes Monday, citing safety concerns. Many businesses refused to open or boarded up their windows.
“It was a miracle that no one was shot,” Belmar said of the looting.
Outside the police department, groups of residents criticized the police but also condemned the looting.
“We don’t want any more violence around here,” said Carolyn Teague, a nurse, as she wiped away tears.
The tension, she said, had one source: “Prejudice in this town still lives on.”
Patrice McHaskell, a teacher at a nursery school, said that in a town where the police force is mostly white and residents are mostly black, police officers have acquired a reputation for frequently stopping young black men, often for trivial things.
The shooting, she said, has tapped into longstanding resentments: “They’re just outraged and they’re tired of the police messing with them. It brought out all the anger and tension that everybody’s been holding in.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. seemed to echo concerns from residents, saying in a statement Monday that the episode “deserves a fulsome review.”
He added, “Aggressively pursuing investigations such as this is critical for preserving trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
The Justice Department sometimes begins its own investigation into police departments that appear to show a pattern and practice of using excessive force, as it has done in Seattle and earlier this year in Albuquerque, N.M., after a series of shootings by the police involving people suffering from mental illness.
The shooting mobilized supporters, including Cornell Williams Brooks, the president of the NAACP, who flew into St. Louis on Monday. He said he was committed to seeking justice.
“Note that he was nonviolent,” he told reporters Monday. “If you want to honor his memory, honor his memory by seeking justice nonviolently.”
Charlie Dooley, the St. Louis County executive, cautioned that the local investigation would not come to a quick conclusion.
“This is a difficult and complex situation,” he said. “There are many sides to the story. There are many answers.”