Turmoil, tear gas give way to hope in Ferguson as police pull back from protests
FERGUSON, Mo. – County police in riot gear and armoured tanks gave way to state troopers walking side-by-side with thousands of peaceful protesters after nearly a week of unrest and mounting public tension in the St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teen was shot by a city police officer.
The dramatic shift Thursday came after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon assigned oversight of the protests to the state Highway Patrol, stripping local police from the St. Louis County Police Department of their authority after four days of clashes with furious crowds protesting the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
“All they did was look at us and shoot tear gas,” said Pedro Smith, 41, who has participated in the nightly protests. “This is totally different. Now we’re being treated with respect.”
The more tolerant response came as President Barack Obama spoke publicly for the first time about Saturday’s fatal shooting – and the subsequent violence that shocked the nation and threatened to tear apart Ferguson, a town of 21,000 that is nearly 70 per cent black and patrolled by a nearly all-white police force.
Obama said there was “no excuse” for violence either against the police or by officers against peaceful protesters.
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.
Nixon’s promise to ease the deep racial tensions was swiftly put to the test as demonstrators gathered again Thursday evening in the neighbourhood where looters had smashed and burned businesses on Sunday and where police had repeatedly fired tear gas and smoke bombs.
But the latest protests had a light, almost jubilant atmosphere among the racially mixed crowd, more akin to a parade or block party. The streets were filled with music, free food and even laughter. When darkness fell – the point at which previous protests have grown tense – no uniformed officers were in sight outside the burned-out QuikTrip convenience store that had become a flashpoint for standoffs between police and protesters.
“You can feel it. You can see it,” protester Cleo Willis said of the change. “Now it’s up to us to ride that feeling.”
Nixon appointed Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black, to lead the police effort. Johnson, who grew up near Ferguson and commands a region that includes St. Louis County, marched alongside protesters Thursday, joined by other high-ranking brass from the Highway Patrol as well as the county department. The marchers also had a police escort.
“We’re here to serve and protect,” Johnson said. “We’re not here to instil fear.”
WATCH: President Obama addresses unrest in Ferguson, Missouri
Several people stopped to shake hands and even hug Johnson and other officers, thanking them by name.
At one point, Johnson spoke to several young men wearing red bandanas around their necks and faces. After the discussion, one of the men reached out and embraced him. At the QuikTrip, children drew on the ground with chalk and people left messages about Brown.
Obama had appealed for “peace and calm” on the streets.
“I know emotions are raw right now in Ferguson, and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened,” Obama said. “But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family.”
Residents in Ferguson have complained about the police response that began soon after Brown’s shooting with the use of dogs for crowd control — a tactic that for some evoked civil-rights protests from a half-century ago. The county police had taken over the investigation of Brown’s shooting and security at the request of the smaller city.
Nixon vowed that “Ferguson will not be defined as a community that was torn apart by violence but will be known as a community that pulled together to overcome it.” The governor was joined at a news conference by the white mayor of St. Louis and the region’s four state representatives and the county executive, all of whom are black.
The city and county remain under criticism, though, for refusing to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing threats against that officer and others. The hacker group Anonymous on Thursday released a name purported to be that of the officer, but the Ferguson police chief said the name was incorrect.
Like the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, social media brought international attention to the tragedy. Ferguson spawned a proliferation of hashtags and has been a dominant subject on Twitter, Facebook and other sites. Journalists and protesters offered real-time pictures, videos and updates, and the world responded.
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.
Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown, has told a much different story. He has said the officer ordered them out of the street, then grabbed his friend’s neck and 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.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said federal investigators have interviewed witnesses to the shooting. A person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said federal authorities have interviewed Johnson. Holder spoke by telephone Thursday with Brown’s family.
In St. Louis, Brown’s mother appeared briefly Thursday night at an anti-brutality gathering near the city’s Gateway Arch, urging through a relative for peace to prevail. The observance was among many staged nationwide, each with a minute of silence for Brown and others affected by alleged police brutality.
Associated Press writers Jim Salter and Jim Suhr in St. Louis, Eric Tucker in Washington and Hillel Italie in New York, and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner, also in New York, contributed to this report.