Wearing neither a helmet nor a shield, the St. Louis County police chief strode directly toward demonstrators, telling them to get out of the street and urging calm.
FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — About 100 protesters gathered along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson late Tuesday in a demonstration that was decidedly smaller and calmer than others on recent nights.
Attendees mostly mingled quietly along the side of the road. Some chanted, and a few held signs. Police officers, most wearing riot gear, appeared to outnumber protesters, whose numbers then dwindled to just a few dozen by midnight.
The St. Louis suburb has seen demonstrations for days marking the anniversary of the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose shooting death by a Ferguson police officer sparked a national “Black Lives Matter” movement. Tuesday was the fifth consecutive night a crowd gathered on West Florissant, the thoroughfare that was the site of massive protests and rioting after Brown was killed. Other nights drew hundreds of people, and one protest earlier in the week was disrupted by gunfire.
Larry Miller, 58, organizer of the protest group Ferguson Freedom Fighters, said late Tuesday that it was clear the latest round of demonstrations were dying down. He wasn’t convinced much was accomplished.
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“We already know what needs to be happening is not happening,” Miller said. “We’re still bothered over the killing of Mike Brown because we still need police reform, criminal justice system reform.”
The first sign of tension Tuesday came after a couple of dozen people walked into the road. Officers including St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar escorted them back to the shoulder. The chief helped clear the street a night earlier too, when he strode into the road wearing neither a helmet nor a shield and spoke with demonstrators, urging calm.
Belmar’s increased involvement came after protests on Sunday night turned dangerously violent when shots rang out and an 18-year-old black suspect was shot by police after he allegedly fired a handgun into an unmarked police van. Police used smoke to disperse the crowd. Three officers were injured.
The St. Louis County executive declared a state of emergency Monday, a move that gave Belmar — instead of interim Ferguson Police Chief Andre Anderson — control of security.
On Monday, the police presence was far greater. Officers lined several blocks of West Florissant, rather than staying confined to a smaller area. Unlike Sunday, there was no gunfire, no injuries and no reports of looting or property damage.
More than 20 people were arrested. Police never deployed smoke or tear gas, though they were at times pelted with water bottles and rocks.
County Executive Steve Stenger said the state of emergency could be lifted as soon as Wednesday, depending upon how Tuesday night unfolded.
On Tuesday, Belmar was critical of an armed militia group patrolling the streets of Ferguson, saying the overnight presence of the Oath Keepers, who wore camouflage bulletproof vests and openly carried rifles and handguns along West Florissant Avenue, was “both unnecessary and inflammatory.” Stenger expressed a similar view.
The far-right anti-government activist group is largely comprised of past and present members of the military, first-responders and police officers. John Karriman, an Oath Keepers leader from southwest Missouri, said members plan to remain in Ferguson at least through the end of the week.
Late Tuesday night, a handful of members arrived. None appeared to be carrying long rifles.
Events marking the anniversary of Brown’s death had been peaceful until Sunday night, when the gunfire rang out and Tyrone Harris Jr. was shot. He is accused of firing into an unmarked police van. The four plainclothes officers inside returned fire. Harris was struck multiple times and is hospitalized.
St. Louis County police on Tuesday released a 13-second clip of security camera footage they say shows Harris minutes before he fired at plainclothes officers. The clip shows a person police identify as Harris grabbing a handgun from his waistband and running toward a parking lot, police say in response to the other shots being fired.
Harris’ father disputed the police account Monday but declined to discuss his son’s shooting Tuesday.
Associated Press writer Jim Suhr and video journalist John Mone contributed to this report.
Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier .