FERGUSON, Mo. — This St. Louis suburb erupted in flames Monday night as its residents reacted in anger to the decision not to charge a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teen.
Despite calls for peace from slain 18-year-old Michael Brown’s family, the scenes both they and authorities had feared came awfully true within minutes of the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the fatal shooting of Brown on Aug. 9.
Arsonists torched a Walgreens store and two cars, including a police car, as looters hit at least half a dozen more stores amid occasional gunfire, blasts of police tear gas and bottles lobbed by protesters.
The chaos descended within minutes after St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced that Wilson would not be charged in an incendiary case that has captured international headlines.
Protesters said witnesses saw Brown with his “hands up” when he was killed and alleged that McCulloch “changed the rules” in Wilson’s case by overwhelming the grand jury with evidence and failing to guide them toward an indictment.
An angry but peaceful crowd of 500 had gathered outside Ferguson Police Department to await the grand jury’s decision. It fell into an eerie hush as the decision was announced, then broke out in shouts of “F – – – the police” as it became clear Wilson would not be charged.
Raw footage: Crowds learn of the decision
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, climbed onto a car stuck in the crowd and grabbed a bullhorn. “It’s wrong,” she sobbed, “You can’t tell me it’s not wrong!”
Others cried, “Let’s burn this bitch down!”
As riot police then emerged, short volleys of bottles and other missiles were lobbed at police, who used their riot shields to protect themselves.
Even as many in crowd urged peace, the vandalism and violence soon escalated, with masked rioters throwing rocks and glass at police, who responded with threats of arrest, then fired tear gas into the crowd.
Photos: Tear gas and fires as violence erupts in Ferguson
Protesters tried to roll a police car, then lit a fire as they retreated in the face of the stinging gas. Police left them free to loot a strip mall half a mile from the police station, where a large crowd of black and white looters smashed their way into a beauty store and a Dollar Tree store before torching a nearby Walgreens.
When sporadic gunfire broke out, many fled, though police were nowhere to be seen.
University of Missouri student and Ferguson resident Brittnay Montgomery, 24, was one of many who looked on in outrage as looters carried away electronics and beauty products.
Though Montgomery joined the protest and said she feared her 12-year-old brother could be gunned down by cops because “none of us is safe,” she described looters as “uneducated people acting up — this is where we live!”
Photos: Protests erupt across the country
At a press conference to announce the decision not to charge Wilson, McCulloch said the jury of nine whites and three blacks met on 25 separate days, hearing more than 70 hours of testimony from about 60 witnesses, including three medical examiners and experts on blood, toxicology and firearms.
He emphasized that jurors were “the only people who heard every witness . . . and every piece of evidence.”
He said many witnesses presented conflicting statements that were inconsistent with the physical evidence. “These grand jurors poured their hearts and soul into this process,” he said.
Protesters were unimpressed, saying they had expected the decision from the beginning but would not stop making their voices heard.
Ferguson resident Carmen Austell, 43, was one of many calling for revolution and racial justice in a majority black town where police are overwhelmingly white.
“I knew what was coming — I know where I live,” she said. “This is America. This is Missouri, a confederate state.
“We absolutely need a revolution,” she said.
At least nine votes would have been required to indict Wilson. The grand jury met in secret, a standard practice for such proceedings.
Speaking for nearly 45 minutes, a defensive McCulloch repeatedly cited what he said were inconsistencies and erroneous accounts from witnesses.
When asked by a reporter whether any of the accounts amount to perjury, he said, “I think they truly believe that’s what they saw, but they didn’t.”
The prosecutor also was critical of the media, saying “the most significant challenge” for his office was a “24-hour news cycle and an insatiable appetite for something — for anything — to talk about.”
Brown’s family released a statement saying they were “profoundly disappointed” in the decision but asked that the public “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”
President Barack Obama also appealed for calm and understanding, pleading with both residents and police to show restraint.
“We are a nation built on the rule of law, so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make,” Obama said.
He said it was understandable that some Americans would be “deeply disappointed — even angered,” but echoed Brown’s parents in calling for any protests to be peaceful.
That seemed a forlorn hope late Monday night as Ferguson burned and bands of roving young protesters continued to goad police.
Thousands of people rallied in other U.S. cities, including Chicago, where 200 rallied outside police headquarters.
Peaceful protests have been going on for weeks in Ferguson — since Brown’s body lay for hours in the center of a residential street in August.
Monday night marked a return to the more violent scenes last seen soon after his death, when demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails and police fired smoke canisters, tear gas and rubber bullets.
But even after Monday’s setback, protester Larry Miller and many other protesters hope the tragedy will in the long run lead to political and economic gains for African-Americans across America by radicalizing the young.
He told anyone who would listen that police were expecting a riot. “They expect us to act like cattle. . . . They expect a riot,” he said. “But why should we give them what they want?”