Two people were shot dead and another injured when at least one gunman opened fire on protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, amid demonstrations against the police shooting of Jacob Blake three days ago.
David Beth, the county sheriff, said one person was shot in the head and another in the chest shortly before midnight on Tuesday. Another person was shot in the arm. The victims have not been identified.
Beth said people describing themselves as belonging to a militia had been patrolling Kenosha’s streets in recent nights but he did not know if the shooter was involved with such a group.
“They’re a militia,” Beth told reporters. “They’re like a vigilante group.”
The shootings were reported at about 11.45pm in an area crowded with protesters supporting the Black Lives Matter movement calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism across America.
Cellphone video of at least two of the shootings posted online showed what appears to be a white man with a semi-automatic rifle firing three or four shots from a prone position on the ground, hitting at least two people.
Authorities said overnight they were looking for a man with a long rifle and trying to piece together what led to the deadly altercation.
Footage posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as gunfire rang out, scattering people in the street. One of the victims, a young shirtless white man with a red bandana around his neck, was seen receiving first aid in a car park after being shot in the head.
In another image, a man sits on the ground with his arm almost severed by a gunshot wound.
The third night of protests against the police shooting of Blake, who was hit at almost point-blank range several times in the back, had attracted supporters of Black Lives Matter and armed rival protesters, who had gathered near a petrol station.
Images of the rival group showed heavily armed white men, some wearing body armour.
According to witness reports, the two groups had clashed as the night wore on, and police fired teargas and rubber bullets at demonstrators near Kenosha’s courthouse.
Social media users posted a series of images including video that appeared to show the same individual – a young man – at key points during the confrontation, including interacting with police in a tactical vehicle who say they “appreciate” the alleged vigilantes’ help and give them bottled water.
Although the sequence of events remains confusing, the Guardian has tried to piece together what occurred from video and images posted online showing the run-up to the shooting and its aftermath.
The young white man first appears wearing a baggy light-green T-shirt and dark jeans and a white reversed baseball cap, with other armed people apparently in the vicinity of a site identified as Bert and Rudy’s Auto Service petrol station, where alleged militia members had gathered ahead of the first shots.
In these pictures, the man, who appears to be in his late teens or early 20s, carries an assault-style rifle, a distinctive black and orange shoulder bag, wearing what appear to be purple nitrile gloves of the kind used by first aiders and hospital staff.
In video footage apparently taken during the first fatal shooting, a man with a rifle is pursued by a second man in front of a building with an auto service sign. The pursuer appears to throw something white at him as the two men approach several parked cars.
Several shots ring out, and then the figure with the rifle reappears from the far side of the cars, slows and walks over to look where someone has been shot. A young white man without a shirt has fallen with a gunshot wound to the head.
The figure with the gun is identifiable as the figure in the green T-shirt, black and orange bag and purple gloves from earlier in the evening
As another man takes off his T-shirt to apply pressure to the wound, the man with the gun turns to leave, talking on a phone.
Other footage, from different angles, then shows what appears to be the same man jogging down a street being pursued.
As one pursuer takes a flying kick at him, the man with the gun falls to the ground and another tries to grab his weapon. That man then appears to be shot at close range and also falls to the ground.
The alleged gunman is finally seen heading north towards several police tactical vehicles, with his arms raised as the tactical vehicles drive by him.
Other clips, which appear to have been filmed before the shootings, show him interacting with local police, who at one stage tell him not to approach, but at another talk to him and other armed men.
Beth said the initial investigation into the shooting was focused on the group of men with guns outside the petrol station.
Commenting on calls to deputise citizens to help police the protests, Beth said: “I’ve had people saying: ‘Why don’t you deputise citizens? This is why you don’t deputise citizens with guns to protect Kenosha.”
Journalists and others on the scene in Kenosha said that from the beginning of the protests on Tuesday armed men had been in evidence, amid claims that some had responded to calls on social media to turn out.
One man with a handgun, interviewed by the Washington Post, said he had come after a call on Facebook to protect the city.
“Ain’t nothing being done. We’re the only ones,” said Joe, 29, who said he was a US Marine veteran. “Three thousand of us are armed and ready,” he added.
There were 34 fires associated with that unrest, with 30 businesses destroyed or damaged along with an unknown number of residences, the Kenosha fire chief, Charles Leipzig, told the Kenosha News.
Adding to the febrile atmosphere were some posts suggesting that rightwing militia members, or “boogaloo” types, had intended to confront the protests.
“I feel very confident we’ll have him in a very short time,” Beth said.
Kenosha has been rocked by protests since Sunday, when police shot Blake in the back.