In the moments before midnight in Ferguson, so many businesses were ablaze at once, and so many demonstrations had broken out in St. Louis County neighborhoods, that a local officer put it this way: “We’ve lost control of the area a little bit; we recommend just getting out of the area completely.”
That was how St. Louis County Police Officer Shawn McGuire put it to St. Louis NBC affiliate KSDK-TV, as throngs of firefighters fought flames at multiple businesses — an AutoZone, Public Storage units, a beauty supply store and a Little Caesars restaurant that had, in recent years, reportedly rebuilt after tornado destruction only to be wiped out again.
In all, St. Louis County Police say they made 29 arrests and confiscated at least one semi-automatic rifle, and at least 12 fires burned local businesses late Monday and into early Tuesday morning.
“This was much worse than the worst night we had in August,” St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar said in an overnight press conference.
(See our Monday live-blog following the grand jury’s decision.)
It’s difficult to get a sense of the wider situation in St. Louis from any one position on the ground, as so much is happening at once. As some businesses burned, looters broke storefronts in scattered places across the area, and a St. Louis-area police officer was shot, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It’s unclear whether the shooting was related to the Ferguson unrest.
The tension was already thick in the moments following the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, and hundreds of protesters had been lined up in front of the Ferguson Police Department since the afternoon hours awaiting the announcement of a decision.
Following County prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s announcement, a handful of people smashed a county police vehicle, which brought a swift reaction from cops: armored trucks, the now-familiar voice of an officer on a bullhorn demanding that the crowd disperse from the street, and a line of officers in riot gear.
Near the Ferguson Police Department, I observed some resistance from demonstrators until hearing the crackle of objects being thrown and more verbal warnings from police, and then suddenly police tossed smoke bombs into the air, followed by tear gas canisters. They sound like small cannons when bursting. Protesters scattered, screaming, and the line of officers protected by heavy riot gear continued pushing down the street.
The plumes from smoke bombs deployed by police were small compared to the flames and billowing smoke shooting from businesses just a few blocks away. Fires sprung up so fast and furiously that the understaffed fire department was at one point fighting an entire store that was on fire with a single hose.