Ferguson Has Calm Night After Attorney General Visits 'Fractured' Community

The US attorney general, Eric Holder, said on Thursday that he found a “fractured” community in Ferguson, and said that he “personally understood” their mistrust of police.

Holder urged patience while federal investigators complete their investigation into the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot dead by police in Ferguson on 9 August.

In remarks at a press conference in Washington, Holder said events in Ferguson had “brought to the surface tensions that have been simmering for some time”.

But, following a trip to visit investigators and community leaders on Wednesday, he warned that the independent FBI probe into possible civil rights violations may not conclude for some time. “I think significant progress has been made but it will take some time,” Holder told reporters on Thursday.

“It doesn’t mean that this thing should drag on – we will try to do this as expeditiously as we can – but on the other hand at the end of the day the most important thing is that we get it right and that means that thoroughness and completeness is what we will exercise.”

Attorney general Eric Holder listens during a meeting with Missouri governor Jay Nixon, right, and other elected officials. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

However, activists in Ferguson planned a fresh protest to demand the removal of Robert McCulloch, the St Louis County prosecutor, from the case.

A group calling itself the Justice for Michael Brown Leadership Coalition said it would picket McCulloch’s office in nearby Clayton and give details of a petition which it said had collected 70,000 signatures.

Protesters have questioned the impartiality of McCulloch, who has deep family ties to local police, including his father, an officer who died during an encounter with a black man.

Clergy and Missouri state senator Jamilah Nasheed, among others, have pressured governor Jay Nixon to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the case. Nixon has expressed hope that McCulloch will step aside but not ordered him to do so. The prosecutor has defended his impartiality and challenged the governor to remove him or let him do his job.

McCulloch issued a statement on Thursday acknowledging the criticism and reaffirming his integrity and fitness to handle the case. “I appreciate and understand the concerns of those who honestly believe that I cannot or will not be fair to all in the gathering and presentation of the evidence pertaining to the tragic death of Michael Brown.”

The prosecutor said he would continue to “faithfully and fairly” carry out his responsibilities and duties, as he had done for the past two decades.

McCulloch repeated his challenge to Nixon to use his authority as governor, under a state of emergency declared last week, to recuse him from the case, or to lift the uncertainty over his role.

“The governor must settle this issue now. To leave this issue unresolved now leaves the possibility of exercising this power at a later date which will cause a significant and unwarranted delay in the resolution of the investigation.”

After two nights of relative peace, Ferguson showed signs of edging back to normality. Schools remain closed on Thursday but teachers offered free tutoring to students at the local library. A magician from Abra-Kid-Abra, a Missouri group which usually performs in schools and summer camps, entertained some of the younger children.

On Wednesday night, rain, a diminishing crowd of protesters and a decision by the police to keep a relatively low profile led to a largely uneventful evening at the scene of nearly two weeks of demonstrations. Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri state highway patrol said there were six arrests, compared to 47 the previous night, and called it “a very good night”. Johnson also said the visit by Holder let people know their voices had been heard.

A demonstrator protests the shooting death of Michael Brown on Wednesday in Ferguson. Photograph: Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile a police officer, shown on video threatening protesters during Tuesday night’s demonstrations, was suspended. Liuetenant Ray Albers of the St Ann police department was seen waving an assault weapon at protesters and threatening to kill them. He also told them: “fuck yourselves”.

Earlier on Wednesday, police in St Louis released video and audio recordings of the shooting on the previous day of Kajieme Powell, a 25-year-old man described as behaving erratically and carrying a knife when officers arrived on the scene.

One video, taken by a witness with a phone camera, shows officers opening fire repeatedly within 15 seconds of arriving at the scene. Twelve shots are fired in rapid succession.

The video will reinforce concerns raised by witnesses who asked why the police officers did not use Tasers or shoot Powell to wound rather than kill. Sam Dotson, chief of the St Louis metropolitan police, said the officers may not have been able to Taser Powell because of his sweatshirt. In the video the sweatshirt appears to be open.

On Tuesday a witness to the shooting, Doris Davis, said she did not believe the police needed to kill Powell. “I think it was excessive. People said he had a knife but if he had a knife they could have shot him in the foot. Or Tasered him. They didn’t have to kill him,” she told the Guardian.

St Louis metropolitan police undertook to release the recordings of the Powell case quickly, hoping to make the circumstances clear and minimise its potential as a further catalyst for rioting and confrontation between crowds and police.

Dotson, the police chief, said: “I don’t think any of us can deny that the tension not only in St Louis but around the county and the world because of the activities in Ferguson over the last 10 or 12 days certainly has led to us making sure that we got this right and answered as many questions as we could as quickly as we can.”

In his press conference on Thursday, Holder said he found a “real fracture” in the community. But he added: “Out of tragedy comes a great opportunity for reforming that community.”


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