U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met St. Louis-area community leaders, FBI agents and the parents of Michael Brown to try to calm violent protests after the unarmed black teenager was killed by a white policeman.
“My hope is that that will have -- give people some degree of confidence that the appropriate things are being done by their federal government,” Holder said at the St. Louis field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to a Justice Department transcript from his visit yesterday.
The arrival of the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, as a St. Louis County grand jury began hearing evidence on the 18-year-old Brown’s Aug. 9 fatal shooting, underscored how the suburb of Ferguson has become an international symbol of racial inequality and heavy-handed police tactics.
Holder said his visit was intended to “have a calming influence” after more than a week of clashes between mostly white police and mostly black protesters that featured Molotov cocktails, tear gas and armored vehicles.
“The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now,” Holder told students and more than 50 community leaders at St. Louis Community College, according to his office. “The issues raised by the shooting of Michael Brown predate this incident. This is something that has a history to it, and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson.”
Violent protests ebbed, with police arresting six people as of 2 a.m. today compared with 47 in the previous 24 hours, State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson told reporters in Ferguson. Police “fired not a single bullet” and “there were no confrontations,” he said.
“The trend is good,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen a calm in the crowd. We saw a different crowd that came out tonight. We didn’t have as many of the agitators.”
Holder said it was a welcome sign of progress, and that his visit helped reassure residents that a “thorough and fair” investigation would be conducted.
“I hope the relative calm that we witnessed overnight last night can be enduring,” he said at a news conference in Washington today.
Holder said he understood how some minorities mistrust the police.
“I am the attorney general of the United States, but I am also a black man,” he said. “I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding.” Holder said police would “go through the trunk of my car, look under the seats and all this kind of stuff.”
“I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me,” he said.
Holder met privately with Brown’s parents at the U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown St. Louis. Before the meeting, Brown’s mother viewed her son’s body at a local morgue for the first time since the shooting.
Holder’s visit marked a period of relative calm in Ferguson, a community of 21,000. Yesterday was the first day since Aug. 14 that police didn’t fire tear gas into crowds of protesters.
A police officer who took part in a confrontation earlier this week was suspended for pointing a semi-automatic assault rifle at demonstrators and threatening to kill one, the Associated Press reported. The name of the officer, from the nearby town of St. Ann, wasn’t released.
Residents have taken to the streets daily calling for Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, to be arrested and charged with murder.
The grand jury won’t decide whether to indict Wilson until October “at the earliest,” said Edward Magee, a spokesman for the county prosecutor.
In an op-ed posted the day before his visit on the website of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Holder said investigators have interviewed hundreds of people and that federal medical examiners conducted an independent autopsy of Brown’s body.
The investigation will be conducted “as expeditiously as we can,” Holder told reporters today.
Wilson, 28, shot Brown after stopping him in the street, police said. An autopsy conducted on his family’s behalf showed that he was shot at least six times. Police said Brown attacked Wilson, while some witnesses say Brown was raising his hands in surrender.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, urged a “vigorous prosecution” in a videotaped statement Aug. 19. He asked Holder and the county prosecutor to use the attorney general’s trip to investigate Brown’s death “thoroughly, promptly and correctly.”
While multiple police agencies are coordinating efforts to restore order, residents in Ferguson and beyond said charges against the officer will be the key to peace on the streets.
Violence will erupt again if the investigations don’t lead to a prosecution and conviction, said Tef Poe, a 27-year-old local rapper and activist.
“If they don’t bring charges, the city’s going to explode,” he said. “I’ll probably have to move.”
Black residents have said 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. Nixon said he wouldn’t ask McCulloch to step aside from the case.
While President Barack Obama has offered assurances of a fair investigation and calls for an end to violence in statements from the White House, Holder has the added impact of delivering his message at the epicenter of the crisis.
The visit is rare for an attorney general. Even Robert F. Kennedy, the activist attorney general of the 1960s civil rights era whose portrait hangs on the wall of Holder’s office, sent deputies to hot spots rather than traveling himself.
Holder brings law-enforcement credentials, including time as the top federal prosecutor in Washington during the early 1990s and a record of activism on civil rights extending as far back as his law school days, when he clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
In his current post, he has emphasized the Justice Department’s role in protecting the rights of racial and ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians, and in fixing what he considers related flaws in the justice system.
He sued North Carolina and Texas last year to overturn voter-identification laws that he says unfairly target minorities. Holder also has instructed federal prosecutors to avoid charging low-level drug offenders in a way that triggered what he considers “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences. He also has called for restoring voting rights to those who have served their time for felony convictions.
While those actions have won Holder praise among blacks, residents in Ferguson said they would continue taking to the streets until Wilson is arrested.
“The only thing that’s going to calm it down is if there are charges against this cop,” said Milton Mathis, a 44-year-old truck driver who lives in the neighboring city of Jennings.