FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) – As another protest on Ferguson’s beleaguered West Florissant Avenue began to turn rowdy, Jon Belmar was among the first to confront protesters.
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.
“They’re not going to take the street tonight,” Belmar told an Associated Press reporter standing nearby. “That’s not going to happen.”
One night earlier, things 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 scene was markedly different on Monday night and early Tuesday, after the St. Louis County executive declared a state of emergency, a move that gave Belmar – instead of interim Ferguson Police Chief Andre Anderson – control of security.
This time, the police presence was far greater. Officers lined several blocks of West Florissant, rather than staying confined to a smaller area. And each time protesters left the sidewalk for the street, police converged.
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.
Reaction from protesters was mixed.
“I think they took command out of the hands of the new chief of Ferguson pretty fast,” Charles Mayo, leader of a moderate protest group that has sought to improve relations between protesters and police, said Tuesday. “They put the response in Belmar’s hands. Me personally, I think Belmar did a great job.”
Ferguson resident and military veteran Hershel Myers Jr. criticized the police response as aggressive and unnecessary. He said Ferguson police should have been in charge.
“This is treatment we’ve been putting up with forever,” Myers said. “It’s always St. Louis County pushing us around and making up rules.”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III disputed the notion that the county taking over was a negative reflection on Anderson and Ferguson police. It simply marked a change in tactic, he said.
County Executive Steve Stenger said the state of emergency could be lifted as soon as Wednesday, depending upon how Tuesday night unfolded.
Events marking the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death were peaceful until Sunday night, when multiple shots were fired 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 in critical condition.
“Obviously, there’s a point at which you’ve got to put an end to it,” Knowles said. “Property and life needed to be preserved. Their (police) tactics were going to have to change.”
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 other shots being fired during the protests.
Harris’ father disputed the police account Monday but declined to discuss his son’s shooting Tuesday.
Demonstrations around the region had long been planned to mark the anniversary. Brown, 18, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot during a confrontation with Ferguson officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014.
Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing by a St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice, but his death spurred a national “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Earlier Monday, nearly 60 people were arrested for blocking the entrance to the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis, where they called for the dissolution of the Ferguson Police Department and asked the federal Department of Justice to “do your job.”
Later during afternoon rush hour, more than 60 others were arrested for blocking lanes of Interstate 70 in St. Louis County, a few miles west of Ferguson.
The nighttime protest in Ferguson involved several hundred people, most of them well-behaved. On a few occasions, groups of people wandered onto the street and blocked traffic, even as an officer with a bullhorn threatened them with arrest.
At one point, the group began marching aggressively toward police. That’s when Belmar directly approached the protesters and made it clear they needed to stop.
Monday’s police presence was far more conspicuous compared with Sunday night. Perhaps 200 officers – mostly from St. Louis County and the Missouri State Highway Patrol – lined one side of West Florissant, allowing protesters to mingle on the other side, except when skirmishes arose.
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.
Last year, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson led Ferguson security efforts during the massive protests that followed Brown’s death. Johnson took over after the county’s initial response was criticized as too heavy handed. Belmar and St. Louis city Police Chief Sam Dotson assisted.
St. Louis city police have not been involved in security so far this year. Johnson has assisted, but Belmar was clearly in charge Monday and Tuesday.
Associated Press writer Jim Suhr and video journalist John Mone contributed to this report.
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