Shops were ransacked by dozens of adults and children during the “free for all” as officers in riot gear used tear gas to arrest 32 people in the Ferguson suburb. A petrol station was also burned to the ground in the night of mayhem.
The disturbance took place after the death of Michael Brown, 18, who, his family claim, was shot dead for no reason while he walked to his grandmother’s house.
It was some of the most serious civil unrest in America this year and is the latest instance of a black person dying after an altercation with a white policeman.
Violence flared on Sunday when thousands gathered for a peaceful prayer vigil for Brown during which they held up signs which read: “No Justice” as they stood face to face with watching officers. After a long hot day in the sun, things boiled over about 8:30pm. Ferguson police were overrun so called in 60 officers from neighbouring counties, including a SWAT team, which only got things under control in the early hours.
Community leaders were quick to condemn the violence and Ferguson mayor James Knowles said: “We’re only hurting ourselves, only hurting our community, hurting our neighbours.”
Mr Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, said: “Anybody who is doing this kind of looting is not on my side.”
The teenager’s death had angered black residents in Ferguson, which is predominantly African American, because they already had a strained relationship with the police.
On Sunday morning Mr Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, wept as he attended a memorial service for the teenager and said: “Ferguson killed my son. Ferguson flat-out murdered my son in the street, a cold-blooded murder.”
Mr Brown’s death has also proved controversial because of the wildly differing accounts of what happened.
Witness Piaget Crenshaw, 19, said that she saw an officer trying to force Mr Brown into his squad car on Saturday and that the teenager then put his hands in the air. She watched as he tried to flee, but was shot several times by the officer.
St Louis County police chief Jon Belmar said at a press conference that there was a struggle in the back of the officer’s car and that a shot was fired, which led to the teenager’s death.The unidentified officer has been placed on leave as an investigation continues.
Last week, a white resident in Detroit was convicted of shooting an unarmed black woman who knocked on his door in the early hours of the morning.
Some of the looters in Ferguson wore T-shirts bearing the name Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was shot dead by a white neighbourhood watch co-ordinator in Florida. Benjamin Crump, a civil rights lawyer who represented Mr Martin’s family, announced he would also be representing Mr Brown’s relatives.
Attorney general Eric Holder has also asked civil rights lawyers in the US justice department to monitor the case.