Police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson used helicopters, armored vehicles and the threat of arrests Wednesday to try to control an area that’s been torn by racial tension and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager this past weekend.
Several high-profile arrests were made Wednesday, the fourth night of clashes since looting and other violence broke out Sunday. Among those taken into custody were St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, as well as reporters from The Washington Post and Huffington Post.
The journalists were seized after they were told to leave a fast-food restaurant; they were also asked for their IDs – and told to stop taking photos. On Wednesday, police in Ferguson asked protesters to not hold demonstrations after dark.
“This was during daylight, this was not out on the street with hundreds or dozens of people,” says Wesley Lowery of the Post, on today’s Morning Edition. “This was in a McDonald’s, with five people, and maybe six officers.”
In his first-person account for the Post, Lowery writes that he and Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly were rounded up as they worked (the WiFi and power outlets at McDonald’s have made it popular with journalists in Ferguson).
Lowery says the officers wouldn’t identify themselves. He was taken into custody after he asked to adjust his backpack – “and they threw me up against the soda machine, put plastic restraints on the backs of my hands, told me I was resisting arrest.”
The two journalists, who had tweeted photos of the confrontation, were quickly released after media contacted the Ferguson police chief seeking comment.
After his release, Lowery tweeted, “I’m emotional, but need to note: Ryan and I are fine. Have seen people in Ferguson hurt by gas/rubber bullets. This wasn’t that.”
Videos from Ferguson’s streets Wednesday night show clouds of tear gas rolling through streets lit with klieg lights and helicopter spotlights, after multiple rounds of gas canisters were fired.
In video posted by local TV news KSDK, police fired a round of tear gas that landed at the feet of a reporting crew from Al Jazeera, which had been taping a report. After the crew ran to escape the fumes, a SWAT vehicle drove to where they had set up and officers in gas masks dismantled the crew’s equipment, as another officer swept the nearby area with his rifle.
The military-style equipment and riot gear being used by police in Ferguson has attracted national attention – and the ire of many residents.
The Post’s Lowery tells Steve that one man in Ferguson told him, “When I go somewhere and see a cop in riot gear, first thing I think is, ‘Riot.’ When I see someone that looks like they’re ready to fight me, I’m going to put up my fists.”
He adds that while the police in Ferguson are dressed in a variety of uniforms, “many of them are in riot gear, SWAT gear, carrying very heavy weapons.” He adds that the officers’ weapons and munitions are “not standard-issue stuff. This is the type of stuff that you see National Guards employ, not what you expect to see from a police officer in suburban St. Louis.”
The use of “hardened” gear by police came up in a recent interview between NPR’s Steve Inskeep and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, the former police chief of Seattle.
Discussing his efforts to cope with protests and rowdy crowds, Kerlikowske said, “to tell you the truth, it makes it pretty difficult, when you’re talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask, to engage with the public and say, ‘Look, let’s, let’s tone this down. Let’s calm things down…. It’s pretty hard to engage in those discussions when you’re hardened up.”
But, Kerlikowske said, he also took into account the view of the police guild, which said “the officers would be in danger if they weren’t in hardened gear.”
Missouri’s Gov. Jay Nixon plans to visit the Ferguson area today.
“The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling, and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans. While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern.”
He added, “I ask that members of the community demonstrate patience and calm while the investigation continues, and I urge law enforcement agencies to keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press during this difficult time.”