The city of Ferguson, Missouri, returned to relative calm after successive nights of violence in what police said marked a turning point in protests following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.
Officers dispersed demonstrators in Ferguson last night without using tear gas for the first time in four days, Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol told reporters early today. Calls for nonviolence made by community leaders including clergy had helped bring about restraint, he said.
“Tonight we saw a different dynamic,” Johnson said. “We had to respond to fewer incidents than the night before. There were no Molotov cocktails tonight, there were no shootings.”
The relative peace affords room for dialogue as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrives today in Ferguson amid growing calls for the police officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown to face criminal charges. Holder’s appearance coincides with the beginning of a Missouri grand jury’s hearing evidence in the Aug. 9 shooting death.
“At a time when so much may seem uncertain, the people of Ferguson can have confidence that the Justice Department intends to learn -- in a fair and thorough manner -- exactly what happened,” Holder wrote in an op-ed column posted on the website of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The incident and accompanying images of armored trucks shooting tear gas and flash grenades at protesters have drawn international attention to the St. Louis suburb of 21,000, turning it into a symbol of racial inequality and heavy-handed police tactics in the U.S.
While multiple police agencies are coordinating efforts to restore order and President Barack Obama sent Holder to meet with FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers handling the criminal probe, residents in Ferguson and beyond said charges against the officer will be the key to peace on the streets.
Brown was killed Aug. 9 by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white officer, after being stopped on a city street, Chief Thomas Jackson said earlier. An autopsy showed that he had been shot six times.
“What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong, and that officer was wrong,” said Deja Price, 25, a hospital cashier who marched up and down West Florissant Avenue carrying a sign reading, “Arrest the Killer.”
“He executed that man,” Price said.
Some protesters threw bottles at officers, who made 47 arrests last night and seized handguns from suspects, according to Johnson.
In contrast to previous nights, police did not resort to tear gas to disperse last night’s demonstrations. After most protesters left voluntarily, about 100 police officers formed a human barricade and advanced on a crowd of about 100, pushing it back away from the protest site.
“I believe there was a turning point made,” Johnson said.
The first night of relative peace on the streets of Ferguson came as state and federal officials sought to advance the investigation into Brown’s death.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon urged a “vigorous prosecution” in a videotaped statement released yesterday. He asked Holder and the county prosecutor to use Holder’s trip to investigate Brown’s death “thoroughly, promptly and correctly.”
The prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, whose police-officer father was killed in a shooting more than 50 years ago, wouldn’t conduct an impartial investigation and should recuse himself, black residents have said. McCulloch said Nixon should decide whether he should remain on the case.
“All I’m asking of the governor is to make a decision -- yes, you’re on the case, no, you’re not on the case,” McCulloch said during a news conference in Clayton, Missouri. “He’s dodging the question.”
Less than five miles from Ferguson, police officers in St. Louis fatally shot a man yesterday as he brandished a knife and yelled “kill me now,” according to Sam Dotson, the city’s police chief.
“Officers gave suspect verbal commands,” Dotson said in a Twitter posting. “Officers feared for their safety and both officers fired their weapons.”
Holder’s visit to Ferguson may improve chances of an arrest, said Katherine West, while walking down West Florissant yesterday and carrying a sign with “We Want Justice” in black letters.
“Protests have helped a lot,” said West, who has two sons, ages 25 and 29. “Letting the world know that all we want is justice.”
The grand jury must decide whether Wilson violated the law and whether he should face charges ranging from manslaughter to murder, said Gordon Ankney, a former assistant county prosecutor who now handles corporate litigation and criminal defense work in St. Louis.
Holder was briefed yesterday on the results of a federal autopsy, according to the Department of Justice.
Three separate autopsies were conducted on Brown’s body. Forensic examinations were done by county officials and a pathologist hired by Brown’s family. A federal government autopsy was conducted Aug. 18.