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What you need to know about the latest protests in Ferguson

Joshua Lott/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the day after it was announced  that police officer Darren Wilson wouldn't be charged with a crime for the August 9 shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, a small group of protesters vented their frustrations with looting and vandalism in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, for the second night in a row.

This followed a day and evening filled with much larger, organized protests in Ferguson and across the country.

The grand jury decision came after more than three months of non-violent demonstrations and national media attention that followed Brown's death at the hands of Wilson, a white police officer. Since then, residents and outsiders from near and far consistently assembled in the St. Louis suburb to protest racially biased law enforcement practices, and specifically demanded Wilson's arrest and indictment.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, announced the grand jury's decision in a lengthy and unorthodox evening press conference, in which he justified the grand jury's decision and discredited witnesses, many of whom were members of Brown's community. This announcement escalated the sense of racial injustice triggered by the case and set off new waves of angry demonstrations in Ferguson. There were fires and reports of gunshots and looting. Police used smoke and tear gas to clear the streets.

Although most agreed that the protests involved far fewer people than usual, the smaller crowd also created far more destruction than any group of Ferguson protesters up to this point. Some critics suggested that McCulloch's timing worsened the situation.

Since then, increasingly peaceful demonstrations have continued in Ferguson, with protestors' numbers varying by the day and fewer arrests each night. Here's what you need to know about what is happening, and why.

What happened during Sunday's protests

  • Protesters at St. Louis County Target and Walmart stores staged "die-in" protests Sunday evening. Demonstrators tweeting from the scene said the Target store remained open, while business at Walmart was at least temporarily shut down.

  • As they were introduced before their Sunday game against the Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams players tight end Jared Cook and receivers Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens and Tavon Austin raised their arms above their heads in the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture popularized by Ferguson protestors.
  • Just before midnight local time, St. Louis Post-Dispatch staff photographer David Carson said on Twitter that it was "quiet" outside the Ferguson Police Department, as a few protestors sat in their cars.
  • Meanwhile, protests continued in cities across the country. In Washington, D.C., demonstrators formed a human chain across Interstate 395 early Sunday afternoon, blocking traffic in both directions for almost an hour, the Washington Post reported.

What happened during Friday's protests

  • On Black Friday, protesters focused on interrupting the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving shopping, demonstrating at WalMart stores and shopping malls in the Ferguson area.  In the afternoon, the Galleria in Richmond Heights closed for more than an hour after protesters marched through, shouting "No Black Friday," and a group lay on the floor.
  • In a similar demonstration at the Chesterfield Mall around 7:30 pm, about 150 people chanted "No Black Friday" before lying down on the second floor, effectively shutting down the shopping center when most of the businesses chose to close their doors.
  • STL Today reported that on Friday evening, 30 to 45 protesters sang "social justice holiday carols" — traditional holiday songs with modified lyrics — outside  restaurants and businesses in neighborhoods near Ferguson, and then staged a four-and-a-half minute "die-in."
  • Around 10:30 pm, police in riot gear arrested 15 protesters who were demonstrating in the middle of the street outside the Ferguson police station, STL Today reported. The St. Louis County Police Department tweeted that one protester would be charged with assault on a law enforcement officer.

What happened during Tuesday night's protests

  • In what police characterized it as a "much better night" than Monday night, people protested in Ferguson again Tuesday and into the early hours of Wednesday morning. A police car was tipped over and set aflame, police used tear gas on protesters rioting outside of the City Hall building and breaking its windows, looters targeted businesses, and, by the end of the night, 45 people (four of whom face felony charges) were arrested, St. Louis County Police chief Jon Belmar said at an early-morning press conference.

  • The National Guard presence in the city was tripled Tuesday, after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's increase of the initial force of 700 to 2,200. He said the National Guard troops were tasked primarily with protecting the Ferguson Police Department. Local officers remained in charge of crowd control, arrests, and use of tear gas.
  • Two FBI agents were shot at a barricaded home outside of Ferguson early Wednesday morning and suffered non-life threatening injuries, police said.  It was not immediately clear whether the shooting was connected to the activity in Ferguson.
  • The night's activities followed a day that included peaceful civil disobedience in Ferguson and the surrounding area. Just after 2 pm local time, protesters blocked a highway.

In New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Boston, hundreds of people marched through the streets in coordinated and largely peaceful demonstrations.

New York protesters carved a path through Midtown and into Times Square, jamming traffic.

In Washington, about 400 people made their way to the White House, where they stood outside the fence chanting, "Whose house? Our house."

Dallas protesters briefly closed Interstate 35; it reopened about 10 p.m

About 1,500 Boston protesters tried to block a major highway, but were stopped by a line of police. Marchers stopped in front of the South Bay House of Correction and began chanting, "Black lives matter," as inmates pounded on their windows, according to news reports. Three people were arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct.

What happened during Monday night's protests

  • Reports of vandalism and fires started almost immediately after McCulloch's announcement. Protesters and journalists shared images of burning cars and buildings in the hours following the announcement of the decision, and they reported the use of smoke and tear gas — although there was confusion at some points about which substance was being used.

  • The St. Louis County Police Department tweeted just after 9 p.m. that shots had been fired in Ferguson. In another tweet a moment later, the department said the window of one of its cars had been shattered, ostensibly by protesters. Later, news networks showed footage of a police car on fire.
  • The building that housed St. Louis Alderman Antonio French's #HealSTL organization — a nonprofit formed in response to unrest in Ferguson — was reportedly among those that were torched.
  • By 12:30 a.m., reporters on the scene said the streets were mostly empty, but fires were burning unattended. News reports stressed that the fires and protests had not been widespread and were concentrated in a few small pockets.
  • An early morning press release from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced that he had ordered additional National Guard troops to Ferguson to "provide security at the Ferguson police department." He had called a state of emergency in the area last week, before the grand jury had finished deliberating.
  • Many local businesses' windows were broken, and there were reports of looting.
  • Amid the chaos, peaceful protesters who marched and held signs received little attention from the media.

The official police account

In a press conference held at approximately 1:30 am, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, joined by Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, offered the following details about the night's events:

  • 29 people were arrested.
  • About 150 shots were fired over the course of the night, none of them by police officers.
  • Officers were hit with rocks and batteries.
  • Police seized at least one handgun.
  • Two police cars were set on fire.

  • There was no loss of life, and there were no shots fired by officers.
  • Smoke and then tear gas were used on protesters to deter violence.
  • The SLCPD's initial approach, he said, was to treat the demonstrations "like some sort of a festival or baseball game or something," but officers had to use more aggressive tactics to respond to violence and destruction.
  • There were "about a dozen buildings burning" as of 1:39 a.m. Belmar characterized most of them as "total losses."
  • There were no reported serious injuries to protesters or police officers, but one officer was hit in the head with a glass bottle.
  • The shooting of a University City police officer that the SLCPD tweeted about earlier in the evening was not related to protests. Belmar said that incident was "totally unrelated to any events here in Ferguson."
  • He said, "I didn't see a lot of peaceful protests tonight," and said the night's events were worse than any of the August protests.

Did the timing of the grand jury announcement make the situation worse?

According to some critics, it certainly didn't help. Although there seemed to be strategy behind pushing the announcement until nightfall — the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery reported that the evening press conference allowed time for school kids to get home and rush hour traffic to abate — many found it curious and counterproductive that McCulloch would give his remarks, which were arguably pro-Wilson, at night.

MSNBC's Joy Reid said Monday night that, in choosing to announce the news after dark, authorities "deliberately almost left themselves with the people most committed to despair," suggesting that those who were inclined to take to the streets late in the evening were also the least organized and most agitated.

What's in dispute about Monday night's protests

The biggest unknown is how many protesters were responsible for the destruction and gunshots reported by the police department and who exactly they were.

Many reporters on the scene had the impression that Monday night's protesters were younger and less organized than the mostly peaceful protesters who took part in the demonstrations that began in August and continued up until the announcement of the grand jury decision. "The folks that were out tonight by and large were not associated with some of the organizations that have started … after August to organize and address the deep, persistent issues here," said MSNBC's Chris Hayes. In an interview with MSNBC, Ferguson Township Committeewoman Patricia Bynes expressed doubt that the protesters who caused destruction came from the Ferguson community.

It was also unclear why firefighters were delayed in arriving on the scene to extinguish the burning businesses, many of which were in flames for hours before trucks arrived.

Why the protests happened

People protested — and will continue to protest — because the grand jury's decision means Wilson will not be arrested or charged with any crime for shooting and killing Brown, despite the fact several eyewitness accounts all give same basic description of Brown's final moments: he had both hands in the air and was attempting to surrender when Wilson fired the shots that killed him.

While, according to McCulloch's post-decision statement, those accounts were not necessarily deemed reliable, they characterized many people's understanding of the case for more than three months.

Unarmed black men are frequently shot by law enforcement officers, but the particular contours of this story — where it happened, when it happened, and who it happened to — made it well suited as a symbol of a larger pattern of disparate treatment of African-Americans in the St. Louis region and elsewhere in the country. The widespread use of "black lives matter" as a rallying cry by the protesters is evidence of this.

To review: ·

  • In the weeks prior to August 9, several recent police-involved shooting deaths were bubbling up in the news, including the story of John Crawford, a black 22-year-old who was killed by police in an Ohio Walmart on August 5 while carrying an air rifle he had picked up in the store. On July 17, an unarmed black father of six named Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by police in Staten Island, New York.
  • Michael Brown was a black teenager, days away from beginning college, when he was shot and killed by a white police officer.
  • He was unarmed.
  • According to multiple accounts, he had hands in the air and was attempting to surrender at the time he was killed.
  • His dead body was left unattended on the ground for 4.5 hours.·
  • Ferguson's black residents are incredibly underrepresented on its police force and in its local government. The city is about 67 percent black, but as of August its mayor and chief of police were white, its school board had zero black members, and one of six city council members were black. And of 53 commissioned officers on the Ferguson police force, three were black.
  • There is also a disproportionate number of police actions against black residents. A report from the Missouri attorney general's office found that in 2013, black people made up more than 93 percent of arrests carried out by Ferguson police.
  • Peaceful demonstrators who demanded the officer's arrest in August, along with journalists covering the protests, were treated violently by a militarized police force.
  • The officer who fired the deadly shots will not be charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime.

There was extensive anticipation and preparation

The extended grand jury investigation left plenty of time for statements and preparations by other government agencies, demonstrators, and outside groups, as the city and the entire nation awaited the decision about whether Wilson would be indicted. The FBI sent 100 additional agents to Ferguson and opened a special St. Louis intelligence center, ABC News reported on November 21, and Attorney General Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department was providing new guidance to law enforcement authorities on "information, tools, and best practices to maintain public safety while safeguarding constitutional rights during First Amendment-protected events."

Meanwhile, anticipating the types of confrontations that led Amnesty International to conclude that police in August violated Ferguson protesters' right to assemble peacefully and to condemn the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to break up protests, organizers of protests made their own preparations. Beginning in mid-November, NoIndictment.org, a website launched by protesters, disseminated information on safe spaces for protesters, local hospitals, and contact information for lawyers.

Protesters came up with proposed "rules of engagement" for the anticipated protests and presented them to the Ferguson Police Department. Police leaders met with protest leaders and agreed to 11 of the rules (including avoiding the use of excessive force and communicating to de-escalate tension), but declined eight of them (including a proposed rule to avoid the use of "equipment such as armored vehicles, rubber bullets, rifles and tear gas").

As the grand jury decision loomed, government officials pleaded with and warned protesters — the overwhelming majority of whom had been peaceful since demonstrations began — to remain nonviolent. The most dramatic action taken in advance of the decision was Gov. Jay Nixon's declaration of a state of 30-day emergency in Ferguson, which allowed him to activate National Guard troops and placed the county police, rather than Ferguson police, in charge of security in Ferguson in the case of unrest.

A spokesperson said the decision was not made because Nixon expected violence in the wake of the grand jury announcement. It was "simply the next step in continuing efforts to plan and be prepared for any contingency, and that means making sure these resources are in place in advance of any announcement."

Still, that decision, combined with Nixon's November 11 warning that "violence will not be tolerated" in the wake of the decision, added to tensions between protesters and government officials.

Some critics said that his apparent adversarial focus on the handful of looters who took advantage of August's overwhelmingly peaceful protests, instead of the mostly peaceful demonstrators, served to foster a culture of violence and fear in the city.

And it was galling for many that officials like Nixon or even President Barack Obama were focusing on the actions of protesters and not shining that light on law enforcement, which had been criticized since August for shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters and accused of trampling on First Amendment rights. In response to one of Nixon's warnings about violence, St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, an active protester, responded with this tweet:

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