Just who is Jeffrey Williams? Police and protesters are giving opposing accounts about the 20-year-old man after he was arrested over the shooting of two officers outside the Ferguson police department last week.
St. Louis County police are saying that Williams was involved in protests, while several regular Ferguson demonstrators are saying that he is not one of them. Family members of Williams said that he had been at some protests following the killing of Mike Brown last summer, but was not a regular.
On Sunday, Williams was arrested and charged with first-degree assault for firing a weapon from a car and other counts of armed criminal action following the early Thursday morning shooting that left two police officers injured outside the Ferguson police station. He made his first court appearance on Monday, but made no statements.
In the hours following the shooting, St. Louis county police chief Jon Belmar called the attack, which injured an officer in the shoulder and another in the face, an "ambush." He also said that the shooter had been "embedded" in the group of protesters that were celebrating the resignation of Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson and calling for the entire department to be disbanded. The two officers were treated and released from the hospital on Thursday.
Following the arrest, police said Williams had been at the protest outside the police department earlier on Wednesday night. Williams admits firing a gun, but denies he was aiming at police — saying he was shooting at someone he had gotten into an altercation with at the protest.
"We're not sure we completely buy that part of it," said Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor in the case — though he admitted the possibility Williams might have been shooting at someone else.
Ferguson officials also released a statement about the arrest that suggests the shooting was related to the protests.
"The city will continue its efforts, with the help of our residents and businesses, to embrace the healing which is needed to move forward," the statement said. "We support peaceful protesting. However, we will not allow, nor tolerate, the destructive and violent actions of a few to disrupt our unifying efforts."
President Obama also denounced violence against police in the aftermath of the shooting last week, while Attorney General Eric Holder called the shooter a "damn punk."
But several of Ferguson's regular protesters — a tight community where most faces are familiar — denied ever having seen Williams before, including the night before the shooting.
Instead, they said they feared the shooting might divert attention from the abuses of the Ferguson police department — which they have denounced since the August 9 killing of Brown and which were further exposed earlier this month when the Department of Justice published a scathing review of the Ferguson police's practices and racial bias.
"They want to focus on everything but the fact that they're killing people," DeRay McKesson, an organizer and regular presence at Ferguson protests, told VICE News. "What was true four days ago is true today: the police are engaged in structural racism and that didn't all of a sudden go away because somebody made a poor decision. That doesn't erase the fact that the police killed seven people in St. Louis since August."
McKesson said last week's shooting was an isolated incident — and that the police department's readiness to label Williams a protester before knowing the facts was just "another reminder of their prejudicial policing."
"The night of the shooting, [Belmar] was saying that this person was embedded in the protest community, that the police were ambushed, which we know to be untrue now," he said. "If anything, this was a reminder of why we protest."
But police disagree.
"Our department has knowledge that Williams was involved in the protests," a spokesman for the St. Louis County police department told VICE News today. "We will not discuss this evidence at this time because it is an ongoing active investigation."
Williams' uncle Mark Mooney told the New York Times his nephew had been to some protests — but not recently.
"After Michael Brown, he was out there protesting," he said. "He had his shirt on. He had his signs up. After that, when things died down, he died down with it." A cousin, Reggie Dobson, blamed the shooting on "some neighborhood beef."
"It was somebody chasing him," he told the Times. "It had nothing to do with police."
Protests in Ferguson have varied in size and attendance over the last several months — and demonstrators have often disagreed on tactics and worked tirelessly to keep each other in check. But depending on the moment, rallies have also drawn crowds of outsiders, supporters, and less-regular protesters, sometimes making it difficult for organizers to maintain the nonviolent spirit their movement has been committed to.
Following the shooting, several within the protesting community had been quick to denounce the violence.
"I'm saddened," TefPoe, a local rapper and early organizer of the Ferguson protests, said on a call with reporters on Thursday. "We don't advocate any form of violence, that's what this whole thing is all about: addressing state violence."
But he and others expressed concern that the shooting might divert attention from the DOJ findings and the violence Ferguson's black residents were also subjected to.
"We can't vilify the people of the community who live here, simply for wanting an accountable police force," he added.
"This has the potential of taking our attention off where it needs to remain," Rev. Traci Blackmon said, referring to the findings of the DOJ report and efforts to reform the Ferguson police department.
Williams, who was on probation for receiving stolen property, is being held on $300,000 bond.
"Every major development or victory for protesters brings out others who then join the fight for the cause," Charles Wade, an organizer who moved to St. Louis following last summer's protests, told VICE News. "The night of the non-indictment, there were many people out that the 'regular protesters' didn't know. There are many cause-oriented people that come out and as much as we may try, we can not control everyone."
Like many others, Wade said he had never seen Williams before.
"The protesters are like a family and we really try to look out for one another like a family and correct bad behavior like loved ones do," he added. "What happened last week has reignited a lot of conversation about what principled protest for us looks like and how we continue to monitor the protest spaces and also lovingly monitor the environment for bad behavior that could undermine protest efforts."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi