A desecrated memorial and comments from a police chief this week brought the simmering tensions between the black residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and local law enforcement to a boil once again, sparking an escalation in protests in the St. Louis suburb during the past several days.
These latest protests were the largest and most volatile since the initial demonstrations that took place for several weeks after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9. The first few weeks of protests, which played out through much of August, captured national media attention as demonstrators took to the streets to speak out against what many saw as a history of discrimination by the local government and police against the black community.
Throughout most of September, the tensions appeared to die down. But a couple of events this week, starting with a burned memorial to Brown, were enough to reinvigorate the protests, indicating that the underlying issues and racial tensions in Ferguson are far from resolved.
A desecrated memorial renewed the protests
The protests picked up again on Tuesday night, after a makeshift memorial for Brown near the site of the shooting burned down. Ferguson officials said the cause of the fire is under investigation, but they pointed out that lit candles were involved in the memorial, which was also made up of stuffed animals and flowers.
Part of Michael Brown memorial in #Ferguson burned early this morning:
— Julie Bosman (@juliebosman) September 23, 2014
Some residents suggested to St. Louis TV station KSDK that the fire was intentional. "We know it wasn't an accident," one protester told KSDK. "You know how many people live over there that seen it from the beginning? I mean it's just a big old flame. You could tell the way it was set."
The ensuing protests at Canfield and West Florissant streets, where much of the initial demonstrations took place, at times got violent. CNN reported five arrests after people threatened police with gunshots, rocks, and bottles, and one person reportedly threw a Molotov cocktail at a parking structure. Two officers were injured, and one business was broken into, Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson told media.
Protesters say the police chief's apology came too late
Perhaps in response to the Tuesday protest, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, in a video posted Thursday, recognized several of his police department's mistakes in the aftermath of the shooting. The apology was long sought by the Brown family and protesters.
Jackson apologized to the Brown family for keeping Brown's body in the street for hours as officers investigated the scene. He also acknowledged the feelings of distrust toward the police within Ferguson's black community, and he appeared to express some regret for how police, which at first responded with a militarized presence to largely peaceful demonstrators, handled the protests.
"The right of the people to peacefully assemble is what the police are here to protect," he said. "If anyone who was peacefully exercising that right is upset and angry, I feel responsible, and I'm sorry."
But the day before, on Wednesday, Jackson told CNN that police will continue using riot gear if the situation escalates. "We cannot have nights like last night," he said "We can't have actions like last night that can result in injury or death. Those will not be tolerated."
In another interview with CNN, Jackson also said that, despite his mistakes, he will not step down. "I've talked to a lot of people who have initially called for [my resignation] and then have changed their mind after having meetings and discussions about moving forward," Jackson said. "Realistically, I'm going to stay here and see this through. You know, this is mine, and I'm taking ownership of it."
Demonstrators appeared to take Jackson's video apology as too little, too late. They again took to the streets on Thursday night and the weekend, some reportedly demanding that the police chief resign. Despite Jackson's attempt to march with protesters on Thursday night, the situation once again escalated into violent clashes and arrests.
Police see such tactics and confrontations as necessary to contain further unrest. But as with the initial weeks of protests, many protesters and their supporters say the police reaction to the demonstrations only reinforces the tensions: as the local black community tries to voice its concerns, law enforcement seems to respond with heavy-handed tactics and arrests.