By Ellen Wulfhorst
FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) – Authorities on Sunday imposed a midnight curfew for the second night a row in the tense St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teen was shot to death last week by police, seeking to secure an elusive peace as protesters continued to gather.
Police blocked off at least one street to vehicle traffic before the sun had even set. The move came as scores of protesters began gathering along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, the site of ongoing protests as well as violence and looting since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death on Aug. 9.
“They want to take it night by night,” said Highway Patrol spokesman Justin Wheetley said of the curfew, imposed Saturday night by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon in an effort to quell protests and looting.
Earlier on Sunday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a federal autopsy of Brown’s body, seeking to assure the family and community there will be a thorough investigation into a death that has sparked days of racially charged protests.
Eighteen-year-old Brown, who was black, was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. The police department in the St. Louis suburb has come under strong criticism for both the death of an unarmed man and its handling of the aftermath.
The Highway Patrol captain charged with restoring order told hundreds of people gathered at a local church for a rally on Sunday that he was committed to protecting their right to protest.
“I’m sorry,” Captain Ron Johnson, who is black, told Brown’s family during remarks that prompted repeated standing ovations at the rally. “My heart is heavy.”
The mood at the rally was somber, as a choir sang gospel music at Greater Grace Church, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton asked participants to join hands and prepare themselves for difficult days ahead as the results of three autopsies of Brown’s body become public, and his funeral is held.
“This is a defining moment in this country,” Sharpton told the crowd. Brown’s death “will change this town,” he said.
In St. Louis on Sunday, about 125 people attended a rally in support of officer Darren Wilson, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department said. Protesters held signs that read, “We love and support you Darren” and “Support our police. Pray for peace.”
Throughout the day and into Sunday evening, protesters gathered on Florissant Street, knots of people on foot replacing those who had cruised slowly by in cars on previous nights.
It was not immediately clear whether the growing crowd would respect the Sunday night curfew. The prior evening, protesters were dispersed by police using canisters of smoke and later teargas after refusing to leave the area when the curfew began.
Seven protesters were arrested early on Sunday after failing to disperse as the midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew went into effect.
During the night, one person was shot and critically wounded. The circumstances were not clear, and the shooter was still at large, police said. Johnson said police were unable to identify the victim, who he said was not shot by police.
Johnson also said someone had shot at a passing police car and was not apprehended.
The smoke and teargas were “the minimum amount of force that we could have used to get them moving,” said Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman Al Nothum.
Nixon, a Democrat, criticized the Ferguson police department for releasing a video on Friday purporting to show Brown taking part in a convenience store robbery shortly before the shooting. Police have said the officer who shot Brown had no idea he was a robbery suspect.
“I think it had an incendiary effect,” Nixon said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Police “clearly are attempting to besmirch a victim of a shooting,” he added.
At Sunday’s rally at the church, some participants referred to the theft of a box of cigars as shoplifting; police had initially called it a strong-arm robbery.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson defended the release of the surveillance video over the objections of the U.S. Justice Department. Jackson said he was complying with the news media’s requests for information in the case.
The decision to release the video while not giving details of the shooting only fueled outrage. The clashes in Ferguson have pitted mostly black protesters against mostly white police in a residential and retail district.
In calling for the federal autopsy of Brown’s body, Holder said it would be conducted in addition to one being conducted by state medical examiners “due to the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family,” Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said.
The family is also planning to have a pathologist conduct an independent examination of the body, a family spokesman said.
President Barack Obama received regular briefings on the situation in Ferguson while on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, including from senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the St. Louis County Police department are investigating Brown’s death, which has been described differently by the police and by a friend who was walking with him at the time.
Police say that after Wilson asked Brown to move out of the road onto a sidewalk, Brown reached into the patrol car and struggled with Wilson for the officer’s service gun. Wilson, who sustained a facial injury, then shot Brown a number of times.
The friend, Dorian Johnson, 22, and at least one other witness have said the officer reached out through his car window to grab at Brown and the teenager was trying to get away from the officer when he was shot. Brown held up his hands in a sign of surrender, but the officer got out of his patrol car and shot Brown several times, they said.
(Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani, and Julia Edwards in Washington, and Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle; Writing by Colleen Jenkins and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Frances Kerry, Cynthia Osterman and Eric Walsh)