As US Attorney General Eric Holder swung through Ferguson, Mo., on a one-day visit Wednesday, protests in the racially tense suburb took on a decidedly calmer tone. Only six arrests were recorded – versus 47 the night before – and reporters and police described the evening as the most peaceful night since the Aug. 9 shooting death of black teen Mike Brown.
By 12:30 a.m. Thursday, most of the 150 protesters who had been marching up and down West Florissant Avenue, where the original incident took place, had gone home, due at least partially to calls for nonviolence by community leaders. Police – most of whom were dressed in regular garb rather than the militarized riot gear they’d worn in days past – adopted a hands-off approach and merely stood guard over the demonstrations.
There were two notable confrontations: In one, a police officer pointed a rifle at several protesters and threatened to kill them before being whisked away by senior officers. In another, officers evacuated a white, pro-police demonstrator from the vicinity of the protesters. But, overall, officials emphasized that the night marked one more significant improvement in Ferguson’s public safety situation.
“Tonight was a very good night,” said Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who took control of policing the protests on Aug. 14. He also described the protesters as a “different crowd” than in previous evenings, as fewer “agitators” – violent elements from outside the community often affiliated with organized fringe groups – were present.
“Each night, I’ve seen a turning point,” Captain Johnson said. “Each night I’ve seen small steps.”
Also calming protests were the rain and lightning storms that passed through Missouri on Wednesday night, and the sympathetic words of Mr. Holder, a black attorney general who has made civil rights a point of emphasis in recent years.
In a meeting with residents at Florissant Valley Community College in Ferguson, Holder acknowledged the enduring presence of police discrimination in the United States – and told of his own run-ins with law enforcement growing up in Washington, D.C.
“I understand that mistrust,” Holder said.
“I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man," he added. "I think about my time in Georgetown – a nice neighborhood of Washington – and I am running to a picture movie at about 8 o’clock at night.... Police car comes up, flashing his lights, yells, ‘Where you going? Hold it.’ I say, ‘Whoa, I’m going to a movie.' "
Holder also met with Mr. Brown’s parents, students at the college, elected leaders, and law enforcement officials – including Johnson. During those meetings Holder emphasized that the racial tensions in Ferguson – and in communities across the country – were the result of systematic problems that “predate this incident.”
Brown’s visit to Ferguson comes just nine months after he visited the nearby city of St. Louis, where the attorney general promoted new initiatives to reduce incarceration among poor black men.
In another St. Louis suburb – Clayton, Mo. – grand jury deliberations began Wednesday on the shooting death of Brown by officer Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white member of the Ferguson Police Department.
There, outside the St. Louis County Justice Center, about two dozens peaceful demonstrators congregated, calling for the prosecuting attorney, Robert McCulloch, to recuse himself. They argue that Mr. McCulloch – whose brother, mother, father, uncle, and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department – is too closely linked to law enforcement in the area to approach the matter impartially. Moreover, his father was killed in the line of duty by a black suspect, local critics say.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Nixon (D), responding to calls for him to replace Mr. McCulloch, refused to take that step, noting that there are methods to remove oneself from a case that do not require executive action.
“Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the investigation,” he said.
During the grand jury investigation, which will likely last into October, 11 jurors will decide whether Officer Wilson should be indicted in the shooting death of Brown. According to autopsies, Wilson shot Brown at least six times, twice in the head.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.