UNITED STATES

What's behind the rioting and looting in the US state of Missouri?

For two days, angry mobs have gone on the rampage in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson after police shot and killed a black teenager. According to our Observer, racial tensions that have been simmering away for years are now starting to boil over.

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Photo taken by Antonio French and uploaded to Twitter.

For two days, angry mobs have gone on the rampage in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson after police shot and killed a black teenager. According to our Observer, racial tensions that have been simmering away for years are now starting to boil over.

Clashes broke out on Sunday evening after a prayer vigil had been held for the 18-year-old victim. Michael Brown was shot dead by police on Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis in the US state of Missouri. Videos showing the full extent of the chaos and looting have flooded social media networks.

A witness says the youth was unarmed and had held his arms up in the air before being shot “in the face and chest”. Police sources have also confirmed that the youth was unarmed when he was shot; though they claim that a struggle had taken place in a police car after Brown had tried to take an officer’s gun. The FBI has now launched an inquiry into the case intended to supplement the ongoing probe led by St. Louis County Police.

Video showing rioters looting a QuikTrip store. Video posted to YouTube by 'Umar Lee'.

Crowds reportedly yelled slogans including “kill the police” in protests that broke out later. Police sent SWAT teams and anti-riot squads to contain the full-scale riots and looting. In this video posted on social media networks, police can be seen patrolling the streets.

"I pleaded with people to go home. But they would just disperse from one place and move elsewhere to keep looting"

Patricia Bynes is a Democratic Committeewoman for Ferguson Township. She witnessed the riots and looting first-hand on Sunday.

On Sunday night there was a prayer vigil that the family had called for at 8pm at the scene of the shooting. There had to be over a thousand people that came out. I was at the vigil. Things had been peaceful. Then there was a march through the community. Unfortunately, there are a few bad apples that can spoil the bunch. I saw people starting to throw rocks and bottles at the police and a police car driving through the crowd. It had to slow down because there were people kicking it. At this point the police did not engage with the protesters. I feel that they showed a tremendous amount of restraint. I didn’t hear any gunshots. As I continued to walk forward then I saw where the police were. By the time I got there they were in full riot gear: masks and shields. I don’t know if they arrived dressed like that or if they had had to change into their riot gear. They had tear gas canisters too.

Video taken on Monday and uploaded to YouTube by Antonio French.

"They broke into beauty supplies stores, clothing stores, local stores"

There were protesters wanting to provoke and antagonise the officers but I understand they were expressing anger and this is how they were venting. Along with me, there were about four or five other people trying to calm the situation down. Then within five minutes of that people started looting. I saw it across the street from me. They broke into beauty supplies stores, clothing stores, local stores. Behind us people had already started looting the QuikTrip shop.

The police chief – Chief Jon Belmar – said to me:

“Will you please ask people to go home. We need people to disperse, because if they don’t this could get very ugly.”

So I pleaded with people to go home. But they would just disperse from one place and move elsewhere to keep looting.

"We need people to allow justice to takes its course"

I understand the people’s anger. There are a lot of questions and I don’t think that there is any justification for police officers shooting an unarmed 18-year-old. But we need justice. We need people to allow justice to takes its course. This has just boiled over and it doesn’t help: the rioting isn’t about Mike Brown. These places that were looted… people from the community work there. The Brown family has said they don’t want any of this. The business owners are now involved, people in the community can’t go to these stores. It’s really sad and the Brown family deserves justice. This rioting and looting is just destructive.

In Ferguson, roughly 20% of the population lives below the national poverty line. From being predominately white over 40 years ago, nearly 70% of the town’s 21,000 residents are now black. Some protesters claim that Ferguson's police force disproportionately target black residents. In 2013 black motorists were twice as likely to be stopped than white drivers. 93% of arrests made following car stops were of black people.

Another cause for tension in Ferguson is the mismatch between the town's racial make-up and the police force. Only three of Ferguson Police Department's 53 members are black, compared to 70% of the town's residents. Elsewhere, only one out of six of the City Council members are black, and both the mayor and police chief are white. Community leaders say the violence is down to the alienation of certain segments of the black population.

There’s been a racial undercurrent in the St. Louis region for quite some time. We have bad race relations here, even geographically. The northern part of the city and county is predominately black. The southern part is mainly white. These race issues seem to be boiling over now. There’s also the overall issue of police brutality against the black community. We have been asking for the FBI and the justice department to get involved in the investigation [The FBI has now opened a probe into Michael Brown’s death].

Video taken on Monday and uploaded to Instagram by user 'classyrealist'.

Video uploaded to Instagram by user 'majesticbeauty_1013'

This article was written by FRANCE 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).