WATCH: What started as reaction to the police shooting of an unarmed teen, has now morphed into a larger and more complicated argument about justice, race and excessive force. Paul Johnson reports.
EDGARTOWN, Mass. – President Barack Obama on Thursday appealed for “peace and calm” on the streets of a St. Louis suburb besieged by violent clashes between police and crowds protesting the shooting death of an unarmed teenager.
“I know emotions are raw right now in Ferguson and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened,” Obama said in his first in-person remarks about the tense standoff in the Missouri suburb. “But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family, we are united in common values and that includes the belief in equality under the law, respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protests.”
WATCH: Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson says they are trying to provide protesters with an area to demonstrate
Obama, speaking from the Massachusetts island where he’s on a two-week vacation, said there was no excuse for excessive force by police in the aftermath of Saturday’s shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. He said he had asked the Justice Department and FBI to investigate the incident.
The president said he had also spoken Thursday morning with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has faced criticism for not doing more to control the violence. Obama defended the Democratic governor calling him “a good man, a fine governor.”
Police defend response to protests
Police have defended their use of tear gas and smoke bombs to repel protesters, saying they took those actions to disperse a large crowd after some people threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers.
Hours earlier, the police chief had said race relations were the top priority in the town, where a white police officer fatally shot the black teen. Authorities have vowed to reach across the racial, economic and generational divide in a community in search of answers.
WATCH: President Obama addresses unrest in Ferguson, Missouri
In the streets of Ferguson, though, the polite dialogue heard at community forums and news conferences is nowhere to be found.
Instead, officers from multiple departments in riot gear and in military equipment have clashed nightly with protesters, who chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Wednesday saw more tense confrontations and further volleys of tear gas from police – this time paired with smoke bombs in response to flaming projectiles and other objects lobbed from the crowd. Protesters faced heavily armed police who at times trained weapons on them from armoured trucks.
Two reporters said they were detained by police for not clearing out quickly enough from a McDonald’s where they were working, near the protests but away from the more volatile areas. The two, who work for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, were released without any charges. Both say they were assaulted but not seriously hurt.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that about 10 people had been arrested, including St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who has been chronicling the protests on social media. Police had said earlier they would not have arrest information until early Thursday.
Residents call police presence heavy-handed
Residents in Ferguson have complained about what they called a heavy-handed police presence that began with the use of dogs for crowd control soon after Brown’s shooting – a tactic that for some invoked the spectre of civil rights protests a half-century ago. The county police force took over leading both the investigation of Brown’s shooting and the subsequent attempts to keep the peace at the smaller city’s request.
WATCH: A TV news crew from Al Jazeera America covering the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri was hit with tear gas Wednesday night
County Police Chief Jon Belmar, though, said his officers have responded with “an incredible amount of restraint,” as they’ve been the targets of rocks, bottles and gunshots, with two dozen patrol vehicles being destroyed.
“It’s pretty amazing how impressed I am and inspired by these officers,” he said. “This is a very difficult circumstance.”
Police had also asked earlier that people assemble in “an organized and respectful” manner and disperse before evening.
The city and county are also under criticism for refusing to release the name of the officer involved in Brown’s shooting, citing threats against that officer and others.
GALLERY: Scenes from Wednesday’s protests in Ferguson
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson called improving race relations “the top priority right now” but also said he won’t be pressured into publicly identifying the officer – despite, he said, mounting demands from clergy, computer hackers and protesters.
“We have the right to know, and the family has the right to know who murdered their son,” said Sahari Gutierrez, a 27-year-old Ferguson legal assistant.
Jackson said he also welcomes Justice Department training on racial relations in the suburb, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black while all but three of the police force’s 53 officers are white.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon asks for calm
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon cited the “worsening situation” in Ferguson in saying he would be in the area Thursday. He asked community members to be patient and calm while the investigation proceeds and urged law enforcement agencies to “keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press.”
Jackson said the investigation remains weeks away from completion.
Police have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car.
The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times. In their initial news conference about the shooting, police didn’t specify whether Brown was the person who scuffled with the officer in the car and have refused to clarify their account.
Jackson said Wednesday that the officer involved sustained swelling facial injuries.
Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown when the shooting happened, has told a much different story. He has told media outlets that the officer ordered them out of the street, then tried to open his door so close to the men that it “ricocheted” back, apparently upsetting the officer.
Johnson says the officer grabbed his friend’s neck, then tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He says Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times. Johnson and another witness both say Brown was on the street with his hands raised when the officer fired at him repeatedly.
Among the protesters critical of the police response has been state Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal, a Democrat from nearby University City
“I just want to know if I’m going to be gassed again, like I was on Monday night?” she asked Jackson at a press conference. “And I was peaceful. And I’m your state senator.”
“I hope not,” he replied.
Associated Press reporters Jim Salter and Jim Suhr contributed to this story. Suhr reported from St. Louis.
© The Canadian Press, 2014