As if the atmosphere in Ferguson wasn’t tense enough, two police officers were shot early Thursday morning during a demonstration outside the town’s police station following the resignation of the embattled police chief.
The officers are in serious condition—one shot in the shoulder, the other in the face—but their injuries are not life-threatening, according to authorities.
The small Missouri town has become a continuing symbol of America’s racial unrest, a place that seems to have accumulated every ill that racism has rained down upon Black people in America. The police department was the entity that delivered many of the daily blows to Black existence in Ferguson—a department that Attorney General Eric Holder last week said had fostered a “highly toxic environment” of racism and misconduct that turned the city into a “powder keg.”
It remains to be seen whether the shooting will exacerbate the already hostile relationship between the police and Ferguson residents—but it’s probably safe to say this will be a particularly precarious time to live in the city.
The police had no information about who might have fired the shots that rang out shortly after midnight Central time at the tail end of a rally that had been going on following disgraced Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s resignation late yesterday afternoon.
Reports say about 50 protesters and 30 police officers remained when the shots were fired, with everyone hitting the ground when they heard the “pop, pop, pop.”
Speaking to the media at an early-morning news conference, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said that it appeared at least three shots were “directed exactly at” the officers. Belmar said a 32-year-old officer (a five-year veteran) from the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves had been shot in the face, while a 41-year-old St. Louis County police officer (14-year veteran) had been struck in the shoulder.
“I don’t know who did the shooting, to be honest with you,” Belmar said, adding that he could not provide a description of the suspect or gun.
“I was in Ferguson, across the street from the police department where the protesters were standing,” Ivory Ned, a witness to the shooting, told NBC News. “Police were coming back and forth, pushing us back to the sidewalk. I got down on the ground when the shots were fired. It sounded like it was around 30 feet away, coming from behind me up on the hill.”
“I did not want to take any chances because I did not know if the police were shooting or what was going on so I got down on my knees and I hid behind a car,” added Ned, who said “tensions were running high” before the shots rang out. “It put everybody in a panic. Police officers were crouched down and they had their guns out. Everybody was in a state of standstill. Once everybody started getting up, you saw two officers still down on the ground so you knew who got shot.”
Freelance producer Jennifer Roller, who had been covering the rally since about 8 p.m., also told NBC News that the demonstrations had been peaceful.
“I heard pop, pop, pop, pop,” Roller said. “I thought they were fireworks until I heard the cops screaming, ‘get down, get down’.”
The officers had been lined up in front of the police station in riot gear when the bullets came flying. After the shooting, dozens of officers from around the region swarmed on the scene, holding rifles and crouching behind any available car, wall or gate while a group of officers in tactical gear moved slowly up the hill in the direction from where the shots came.
Considering how peaceful the demonstrations have been in recent months, the shooting could change the relationship between the protesters and the police, who are bound to be more tense going forward and feeling under siege from not only political threats but now physical ones.
Jackson’s resignation came as just the latest in a wave of city officials stepping down following the scathing report from the Justice Department. While Holder’s Justice department failed to bring civil rights charges against officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, Holder said last week that he was prepared to dismantle the Ferguson police department if necessary.
“We are prepared to use all the power that we have … to ensure that the situation changes there,” Holder told reporters.
Civil rights lawyers have suggested the Ferguson police could be absorbed by the St. Louis County Police Department.
The Department’s investigation tore open the racism and corruption of the Ferguson Police Department—from the targeted deployment of police dog attacks on Black victims to nasty, racist emails exchanged between officials.
Before Jackson, City Manager John Shaw stepped down on Tuesday, while Capt. Rick Henke and Sgt. William Mudd resigned last week.
In addition, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles announced last week that another police department employee was fired following the release of the racist emails.