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After night barrage of gas and grenades, images of Ferguson confrontations resonate around U.S.

August 14, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
A scene of chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, captured the nation’s attention when police officers unleashed a barrage of stun grenades and tear gas to dispel protests over the killing of an African-American teenager. Police said they used force when protesters started throwing rocks and firebombs. Judy Woodruff reports on the incident, and the pushback that followed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to the drama that unfolded in the Saint Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, last night, and dominated conversation across the country today.

It was a scene of utter chaos that riveted the nation’s attention. Stun grenades and tear gas exploded in the streets of Ferguson, as heavily armed police aimed weapons from armored trucks. Police said they used force when a protest that began peacefully turned violent, with people throwing rocks and firebombs.

MAN: You must disperse immediately. This is no longer a peaceful protest when you try to injure people. You must disperse now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With that, officers loosed the barrage of grenades and gas, sending the crowd fleeing.

MAN: We just said, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

MAN: Is that all you were saying?

MAN: That’s all we were saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

MAN: Were you in the front line up there?

MAN: In the front line, yes. And they just started shooting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both city and county officers were involved, and today they defended their actions.

Thomas Jackson is chief of the Ferguson police.

THOMAS JACKSON, Chief, Ferguson Police Department: There is gunfire. There are firebombs being thrown at the police. And I understand that what it looks like is not good. The whole situation is not good.

We would like the protesters to stop the violence. We certainly don’t want to have any violence on our part. We want this to be peaceful. If individuals are in a crowd that’s attacking the police, they need to get out of that crowd. We can’t individually go in and say, excuse me, sir, are you peacefully protesting? Are you throwing rocks? Are you throwing a Molotov cocktail? It’s a crowd.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch reported 10 people were arrested, among them, Saint Louis City Alderman Antonio French, who’d been chronicling events on social media, including several Vine video posts.

MAN: What do we want?


JUDY WOODRUFF: French was released this morning.

MAN: Stop videotaping. Let’s grab our stuff and go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery recorded this exchange with police, as he and a Huffington Post reporter were ordered to clear out of a nearby McDonald’s.

MAN: You don’t have time to ask questions. Let’s go.

The reporters were detained and later released without any charges. Separately, members of an Al-Jazeera America TV crew had to run for it, after police fired tear gas as they prepared for a live report. Today, the police chief denied the media had been deliberately targeted.

But the stark images from last night reverberated far beyond Ferguson. President Obama interrupted his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.

And here in the United States of America, police shouldn’t be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Missouri political leaders spent the day in Ferguson. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, speaking after a community gathering, sharply criticized police tactics.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D, Mo.: I think that the police response needs to be demilitarized. I think that the police response has become part of the problem, as opposed — as opposed to being part of the solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Police Chief Jackson rejected the criticism.

THOMAS JACKSON: The whole picture is being painted a little bit sideways from what’s really happening. And it’s not military. It’s tactical operations. It’s SWAT teams. That’s who’s out there, police. We’re doing this in blue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also voiced concerns about police actions, and said the Justice Department has offered to provide technical assistance with crowd control.

The night’s events in Ferguson have swept across the Web in a torrent of videos, tweets and retweets. The chant of “Hands up, don’t shoot” had already morphed into a rallying cry on social media. This morning, Howard University in Washington, D.C., posted a photo on its Facebook page, showing scores of students with hands raised and the hashtag #HandsUpDontShoot.

Similar photos from across the country also circulated online.

PROTESTERS: Don’t shoot!


PROTESTERS: Don’t shoot!

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, the investigation continued into the incident that started all this, Saturday’s shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

The identity of the officer who fired the fatal shot remained a point of contention. Authorities again said they’re not ready to release the name, due partly to death threats. At one point, a Twitter account associated with the activist group Anonymous did publish a name that it said was the officer in question. That was flatly denied by police, and Twitter later suspended the account.