FERGUSON, Mo. — Hours ahead of a second night of a mandatory curfew, the most chaotic violence in a week of unrest broke out here Sunday evening with law enforcement officers responding to reports of gunfire and fire bombs.
The violence began about 9 p.m. local time along West Florissant Avenue, one of the city’s main streets, within two blocks of where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot. Hundreds of police officers turned out in riot gear, shooting rubber bullets and firing canisters of tear gas in an effort to disperse the crowd. Some in the crowd retrieved the smoking canisters and threw them back toward the officers.
It was not immediately clear what set off the violence, but there were reports that the police feared that some of the protesters were trying to encroach on their command post in a shopping center parking lot. Protesters said the police fired without provocation.
Key Smith, 46, a veteran who served in Iraq, said that he, his wife and their 7-year-old son had traveled two hours from Fort Valley, Georgia, to attend a church rally to honor the memory of Brown and they were caught up in the violence as they were trying to get home.
“I just came out to see a peaceful rally,’’ Smith said. “It takes away from his death, his memory.’’
Smith said he did not blame the police for their response.
“You have to disperse the crowd if the crowd gets wild,’’ he said. “This is getting out of hand. It’s kind of sad that it’s come to this. If you really want to hit them in the right way, get out there and vote.’’
After the initial barrage of tear gas, the police formed into ranks and moved down the street, pushing the protesters from the area.
Scattered clashes and violence had flared early Sunday morning during the first hours of the midnight to 5 a.m. curfew in this troubled city. But the trouble Sunday evening was a sharp contrast to the mood of the rest of the day. At churches across the area, ministers, the police and civil rights figures joined parishioners in trying to tamp down the anger that has followed the Aug. 9 death of Brown, 18.
In a packed sanctuary at Greater Grace Church, not far from the site of evening demonstrations, Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, the Missouri State Highway Patrol captain brought in by the governor to take over security, spoke with the cadence of a preacher as he apologized to the family of the teenager.
“My heart goes out to you, and I say that I’m sorry,’’ Johnson said. “I wear this uniform, and I should stand up here and say that I’m sorry.’’
Before a mostly black audience, Johnson, who is African-American, spoke of his own “black son, who wears his pants saggy, wears his hat cocked to the side and has tattoos on his arms.’’ He added, “That’s my baby.’’
“Michael’s going to make it better for our sons so they can be better black men,’’ he said, predicting that the treatment of black youths here would somehow change. “We need to pray. We need to thank Michael for his life. And we need to thank him for the change that he is going to make.’’
Time and again, Johnson won applause. But in a vivid display of the challenges faced by the authorities in this tumultuous city of 21,000 that has become the center of a national debate about race and policing, a large crowd outside continued to protest Brown’s death. The shooting of the teenager on Aug. 9 by a white officer, Darren Wilson, is the subject of inquiries by the FBI and the St. Louis County police.
Several demonstrators held signs reading “Stop racist police killing,’’ while many others joined in the chant that has echoed through this city’s streets for days: “Hands up! Don’t shoot!’’ Hours earlier, just after a midnight curfew went into effect on Saturday, police officers dressed in riot gear and driving heavily armored vehicles engaged in a new clash with angry demonstrators. One person threw a bottle bomb that lit the street ablaze and left a lingering scent of gasoline. Before long, a police caravan with lights flashing began rolling slowly toward the protesters.
“You are violating the state-imposed curfew,’’ an officer said over a loudspeaker. “You must disperse immediately, or you’ll be subject to arrest and or other actions.’’
The crowd did not back down, cheering louder. Eventually a canister of tear gas was lobbed into the crowd. Smoke filled the air. Some people ran away from the police. Bottles crashed onto the pavement. Johnson said the heavy police response had been prompted by reports of armed people at a barbecue restaurant.
Someone also had fired a gun toward a police car, he said.
Seven people were arrested and accused of failing to disperse, and one man was critically wounded in an overnight shooting, apparently by another protester. The authorities said the police had not opened fire.
Officials extended the curfew, which runs from midnight until 5 a.m., for another night and said they would decide each day whether to continue its enforcement.
On Sunday, civil rights organizations called on Gov. Jay Nixon to rescind the state of emergency and the curfew in Ferguson.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said in a statement that the governor’s action “suspends the constitutional right to assemble by punishing the misdeeds of the few through the theft of constitutionally protected rights of the many.’’
“We need more protest, expression, discussion and debate — not less,’’ the statement said.
In St. Louis, about 100 people turned out in a show of support for Wilson, according to local media reports.
In churches here, the calls for calm continued.
At the Greater St. Mark Family Church in Ferguson, the state attorney general, Chris Koster, said he came to pray and grieve with the mostly African-American parishioners.
“You have lost a member of your community at the hands of a member of my community,’’ he said. “Not just the Caucasian community, but the law enforcement community. And that is painful to every good-hearted person in this city.’’
He said he feared that the armored vehicle the police used on West Florissant Avenue, the scene of daily demonstrations since Brown was killed, was a symbol of the armor that had grown between the black community and law enforcement.
“This week is a 50-year flood of anger that has broken loose in this city the likes of which we have not seen since Dr. King was killed,’’ he said, referring to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “And I am sorry that I have not done more from the law enforcement community to break down that wall of anger, that wall of armor.’’
At the Sunday morning service at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church here, about 40 people gathered. On a screen hanging above the pulpit, Jaquan Vassel, 24, the church deacon, played a video he had seen the night before on his Facebook news feed. In it, two black men were reading from the Book of Psalms during a protest on West Florissant Avenue.
“I commend them for trying to look to God,’’ Vassel told the congregants, “but you hear the anger in their voices.’’
“They are angry at the police officers,’’ he added. “We have to show them how to forgive, just like God forgave us.’’
Forgiveness was also emphasized by Alonso Adams Jr., the assistant pastor of the church, who spoke after Vassel.
“How many of us have killed people with our lips?’’ he asked. “How many brothers and sisters, white or black have we defamed with our words?’’
Adams acknowledged the anger toward the police force, in particular toward Wilson. But, the pastor added, “If he came into this church this morning and asked Jerusalem to forgive him, how many of you would offer up your arms?’’
And later at Greater Grace Church, where cars were lined up for at least a mile, the Rev. Al Sharpton called the killing of Brown “a defining moment on how this country deals with policing and the rights of its citizens to address how police behave in this country.’’
Sharpton recalled Marlene Pinnock, a black woman who was assaulted by an officer in Los Angeles this summer; Eric Garner, a black man in Staten Island who was put in a chokehold by an officer and who later died; and the death of Brown, saying, “We have had enough.’’
One woman in the crowd raised a handwritten sign that equated the city Ferguson Police Department with the Ku Klux Klan.
Sharpton admonished the crowd not to loot in Brown’s name.
“We are not looters,’’ he said. “We are liberators.’’