As another night of peaceful protests over the police killing of an unarmed black man devolved into confrontation and confusion, the Missouri State Highway Patrol officer in charge of law enforcement in this St. Louis suburb said 31 people had been arrested as of 2 a.m. Tuesday, some from as far away as California and New York.
The arrests underscore that outsiders are making trouble during the demonstrations that have followed the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by a Ferguson police officer, Capt. Ron Johnson said at a news briefing.
At one point, he said: "Our officers came under heavy gunfire” but did not fire a single bullet.
“This was not an act of protesters. This was an act of violent criminals,” he said.
Monday night's vandalism included two fires, he said -- one at a business, the other at an unoccupied residence. At least two people were shot, he said; he did not know their conditions. Officers used an armored vehicle to rescue one of the gunshot victims.
The trouble began about 9:40 p.m., he said, when 200 "loud but not aggressive protesters" converged at the corner of Ferguson and West Florissant avenues and faced a line of police in riot gear.
"Police did not react," Johnson said. "That's when bottles were thrown from the middle and the edge" of the crowd.
"These criminal acts came from a tiny minority of troublemakers," he said.
Johnson displayed two guns and a Molotov cocktail that he said officers had seized from instigators of the night's violence.
“Protesters are peaceful and respectful. They don’t clash with police. They don’t throw Molotov cocktails,” he said.
Johnson urged protesters to come out only in the daylight so that provocateurs could not hide behind peaceful crowds.
At times, Johnson grew emotional as he defended the actions of law enforcement officers, raising his voice as he described the chaos around them. "We just had officers in the midst of gunfire," he said.
He vowed to restore calm.
"This nation is watching each and every one of us," he said. "We're going to solve this. ... We're going to make this neighborhood whole. We're going to make this community whole."
As if to get a little help from a higher power, Johnson had a chaplain open the news briefing with a prayer for peace.
Hours earlier, Johnson told CNN that attacks on police had prompted the decision to fire tear gas and begin arresting those who defied orders to disperse.
“There becomes a balance on how long do we wait and if we wait too long. … We do not have an opportunity to address that issue. So it becomes a balance.”
“That was not part of our plan,” he said of the decision to use force to try to scatter the protesters.
Johnson was brought in after a massive, militarized police response in the early days after Brown's killing backfired and enraged the protesters.
He said he still favors a more peaceful approach but would not shrink from other tactics as needed.