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Ferguson Police Descend on Protesters with Arrests, Tear Gas, and Martial Law

Chaotic scenes as police arrest reporters, fire at protesters

Nadia Prupis

Police in Ferguson, Missouri on Wednesday arrested reporters and activists, launched tear gas at protesters, and used armored tanks and helicopters to force media out as residents continued to demand answers about the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old who was shot to death by an officer last weekend.

St. Louis alderman Antonio French, who had helped organize demonstrations and provide live updates on Twitter, was arrested for "unlawful assembly" after police forced him out of his car and told him he "didn't listen," according to French's wife, Jasenka Benac French.

Two reporters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan J. Reilly of Huffington Post, were also taken into custody in a foreboding encounter recorded on Lowery's cell phone. An officer can be seen demanding that Lowery stop filming and refusing to answer questions. In a blog post about his experience, Lowery writes:

Multiple officers grabbed me. I tried to turn my back to them to assist them in arresting me. I dropped the things from my hands. “My hands are behind my back,” I said. “I’m not resisting. I’m not resisting.” At which point one officer said: “You’re resisting. Stop resisting.” That was when I was most afraid — more afraid than of the tear gas and rubber bullets.

Photos and videos from Wednesday night show chaotic scenes as protesters run from police firing rubber bullets through thick clouds of smoke from tear gas canisters. Police also fired tear gas directly at an Al Jazeera camera crew, who had set up equipment to film the protests; after they ran to escape the fumes, officers broke down their cameras.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon made his first comment on the events on Thursday morning after five days of demonstrations and police brutality. "The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling, and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans," Nixon said in a press release. "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."

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) also said she plans to speak with Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday. The FBI joined the investigation into Brown's death earlier this week to determine whether there had been civil rights violations.

Brown was killed over the weekend when a police officer shot him multiple times. Brown was unarmed.

Tensions between police and residents were high throughout the weekend, particularly as officers responded to peaceful demonstrations by dressing in riot gear and holding rifles and attack dogs. But the protests reached a turning point when the department suddenly refused to release the identity of the officer who fatally shot Brown, despite police chief Tom Jackson's promise to announce the name on Tuesday. Jackson claimed the officer's safety was at risk.

The ACLU of Missouri sent a letter (PDF) to Jackson on Wednesday warning him that his officers violating the First Amendment by preventing media access to the city and demanding that residents "limit themselves to assembling during daylight hours and protest in a 'respectful manner.'"

"Government agencies do not get to demand respect from protesters," the letter read. "Respect is something that government officials earn from citizens, and citizens are entitled to express their lack of respect by protest on public streets and sidewalks."

Residents were also angered and demoralized by the militarization of the police response, as officers crack down on demonstrations with tanks, helicopters, and rifles, setting a scene that resembles a war zone more than a town in the U.S. Lowery told NPR that many Ferguson officers "are in riot gear, SWAT gear, carrying very heavy weapons... 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."

On Twitter, Gaza residents sent messages to Ferguson protesters with instructions on how to escape and recover from tear gas.

Howard University students also shared a powerful image of their solidarity, as thousands of students gathered into a single photo with their empty arms raised in the air.

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