Updated at 1:05 a.m. March 13 with comments from the protest.
The St. Louis region is struggling to make sense of the shooting of two police officers during a protest in Ferguson last night, and the violence has drawn widespread condemnation.
“We reject any kind of violence directed towards members of law enforcement. It cannot and will not be tolerated,” the family of Michael Brown said in a statement.
“We specifically denounce the actions of stand-alone agitators who unsuccessfully attempt to derail the otherwise peaceful and non-violent movement that has emerged throughout this nation to confront police brutality and to forward the cause of equality under the law for all,” the statement read.
The injured officers were released from the hospital on Thursday morning, as authorities launched an investigation to find who was responsible for the shootings.
Activists, elected officials, and the White House took to Twitter to condemn the violence and call for police. Many used the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter to express support for law enforcement.
Protests after the shooting
A message of community and togetherness permeated a prayer vigil held Thursday night before the latest protest at the Ferguson police station.
"We came to remember that we are all connected, and until we recognize the humanity in one another, we cannot heal," said Pastor Traci Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Ferguson. "We refuse to let the enemy win this battle."
In offering a prayer for the two injured officers, Rev. Renita Lamkin of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Charles warned those gathered not to let their anger at the system drown out their compassion.
"Our desire is to see systems change, not officers injured," she said.
The Rev. Starsky Wilson, a co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, cursed those who brought violence to the protests by shooting the officers.
The protesters, too, worked to build community among themselves. At a gathering before moving into the streets, they spoke of their reasons for coming out. One protester said she wanted her nieces, nephews and best friends to be able to be safe without having to think about it. Elizabeth Vega said for her, the shooting of Michael Brown was the "collective snap of the last straw."
Activist Dhoruba Shakur led the general assembly, and encouraged protesters to make it a regular part of their evenings. He said it was important for people to come out even if they were scared about more violence to show the national media what the protesters are actually for.
"They tried to come out here and paint the narrative a different way, that we were going to be aggressive, and all these different things, but we’re just out here voicing our opinion," he said.
St. Louis County and the Missouri State Highway Patrol are now in charge of policing the protest zones in Ferguson. While county chief Jon Belmar had promised a change in tactics after the shootings, officers seemed to back off rather than become more aggressive. Most of the officers on the front line were not wearing riot gear, and protesters were allowed to stand in the street for most of the night. There were no arrests at the scene.
"There isn't necessarily a change in tactic," said St. Louis County Lt. Jerry Lohr, one of two commanders on site. "The goal has always been the same, to protect everybody's rights. "Obviously with the fact that officers were shot – officers are going to be more cautious, I think your protesters are to be a little more hesitant. I think that sense of unease puts everyone on edge."
Ferguson Pastor: These acts are not a part of protest.
As the leader of the Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Pastor Willis Johnson has been a frequent presence at protests over the past seven months, calling for nonviolent, civil actions. He appears in a now-iconic photo of a gathering back in August, trying to calm down a member of the crowd.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Durrie Bouscaren sat down with Pastor Johnson Thursday morning, the day after two police offers were shot during protests at the Ferguson Police Department.
On the shooting Wednesday night:
“Those acts are not part of protest. Shooting and victimizing, destruction of property, extreme instances of vandalism, and disrespect of people and property is not in itself protest. And it’s definitely not part of the nonviolent, civil disobedient framing that most participants adhere to. And yet it is a reality that somehow we have to address."
On disappointment and discouragement:
“It particularly [is disappointing because it] happens at a moment where there is some momentum; beginning efforts of addressing the systematic nature of what we thought led to these concerns … To have this setback is very discouraging for many of us, and to have something that could, if we allow it to, not only escalate but also, in some cases, splinter us is unfortunate.”
On the future of the protest movement:
“There has to be a collective voice of consciousness and some sense of commitment to acting in ways that bring us together. And that, while we challenge each other, hold each other accountable and yet remain answerable to each other and to the situations. It’s time for the citizenry of Ferguson to be respected so that those who do come to our community come along side [us], and don’t push aside.”
Organization for Black Struggle responds
The Organization for Black Struggle, a St. Louis-based group of protest organizers, called the shooting 'senseless' on a conference call Wednesday afternoon. The Rev. Tracy Blackmon with Christ the King United Church of Christ told reporters that the shooting will not help the region improve. "This is not the character of the protests that we have had all of this time. It is not right for any humanity to be targeted in this way. And yes, we are grieving," Blackmon said. Representatives of the organization said the shooting had nothing to do with the protestors who have been rallying every day since Michael Brown was killed last August.
Follow Bouscaren on Twitter: @durrieB