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Holder Visits Ferguson, Mo., In Bid To Have ‘Calming Influence’

By Kevin McDermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON, Mo. — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met privately on Wednesday with the parents of Michael Brown, part of a one-day swing through the region by the nation’s top law enforcement official in the wake of 12 nights of riots and strife.

The stated purpose of Holder’s visit was to get a first-person update from Department of Justice officials here on the status of the pending federal investigation into Brown’s Aug. 9 shooting death by a Ferguson police officer. After meeting with his own St. Louis-based underlings, Holder met with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and key members of the state’s congressional delegation, including both its U.S. senators.

But the trip also had a clear tone-setting component, designed to show the White House is taking the Ferguson conflict seriously, in hopes of easing tensions in the community.

In addition to his private meeting with Brown’s parents, Holder met with students at an area community college, chatted with patrons of a Ferguson diner and literally embraced Capt. Ronald Johnson, the Missouri state trooper whose attempts to defuse the nightly showdowns have made him a national figure.

“My hope is that the trip I’m making out here … will have a calming influence on the area,” Holder told reporters. He said his appearance should be a signal to residents that “a thorough federal investigation is being done.”

Holder stressed that the pending federal investigation has a fundamentally different angle than the local criminal investigation. “We’re looking for violations of federal civil rights statutes,” Holder said.

Holder landed in the region about 11 a.m. His motorcade headed first to St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley in Ferguson. The attorney general met with about a dozen students, and hugged one of them after the meeting.

One of the students in the meeting, Molyric Welch, 27, a mass communications student, said Holder told them, “Change is coming.”

“He told us we are the future and we need to stay focused on getting our education,” Welch said. The attorney general also “wanted to know how it felt to be a resident of this area.”

Student Dominique McCoy, 22, said, “We talked about how things can be changed, and how it has to start with us, the younger generation.”

Shortly before 1 p.m, Holder attended a closed-door meeting at the school with members of the Ferguson community. The Community Relations Service organized the meeting with about 50 people, according to the attorney general’s office.

“The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now,” Holder told them, according to a transcript provided later by his office. “This is something that has a history to it and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson.”

The attorney general shared his own experiences of being singled out because he was black, including one incident in which he was stopped by police while going to watch a movie.

“At the time that he stopped me, I was a federal prosecutor. I wasn’t a kid,” he said, according to the transcript. “I worked at the United States Department of Justice. So I’ve confronted this myself.”

The attorney general later went to Drake’s Place, a restaurant just a few blocks from the site of nightly violence in Ferguson. He greeted customers — including the mayor of nearby Cool Valley, who happened to be there for lunch — and asked how they were doing.

“We’re doing pretty good, though it’s affecting a lot of municipalities,” Mayor Viola Murphy said of the protests and clashes in and around Ferguson. “We don’t want the world to know us for what is going on here.”

At the restaurant, Holder also encountered Johnson, who was put in charge of security in the Ferguson area by Nixon last week. Holder and Johnson embraced under the glare of television lights as patrons looked on.

Holder lauded Johnson for his leadership: “If you sustain that and get the community involved, we can turn this around.”

Johnson said the situation was getting better. Holder told him to “Keep up the good work and get a little rest.”

After Holder’s appearance, Johnson said the visit “will show the people of Ferguson and the country that their voices are heard.”

Holder then went to the FBI headquarters in St. Louis to meet with U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan and others. The attorney general briefly addressed reporters, saying that he wanted to be able to “look in the faces” of the agents who will conduct the federal investigation.

Late in the day, Holder went to the Eagleton Federal Courthouse in downtown St. Louis to meet with both parents of Michael Brown.

Afterward, in the same building, he met with elected officials, including Nixon, U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Roy Blunt (R-MO), and U.S. Reps. Lacy Clay and Emanuel Cleaver, both Missouri Democrats.

AFP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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Missouri Governor Jay Nixon Not Ready To Call Special Prosecutor

By Kevin McDermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Even as a St. Louis County grand jury prepares to open its examination of Michael Brown’s death, a rising chorus is demanding that the county’s controversial elected prosecutor step aside and let a special prosecutor handle it.

But Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon isn’t ready to join that chorus.

Nixon said Tuesday he doesn’t intend to ask County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch to step aside from the case amid criticism that McCulloch will be biased in favor of the police officer who shot Brown.

“You have a democratically elected prosecutor,” Nixon said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch on Tuesday afternoon. “At times of stress to democracy, you need to look at the process that has served our state and country well.

“If he thinks that he wants to do that, certainly. That’s his call.”

Nixon later released a statement defending that decision on grounds that switching prosecutors now could endanger any future prosecution in the case.

“There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse themselves from a pending investigation, and a special prosecutor be appointed,” Nixon said in the statement. “Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution.”

McCulloch is from a family with deep roots in police culture, including his late father, a police officer who was killed in the line of duty by an African-American suspect.

In both his prosecutorial decisions and public comments, critics say, he has shown a clear bias toward police in cases where officers’ actions are in question.

Among McCulloch’s recent controversial statements was searing criticism of Nixon himself, for his decision last week to put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of security in Ferguson, after local and county police were accused of being overly aggressive with protesters.

“It’s shameful what he did today, he had no legal authority to do that,” McCulloch said of Nixon at the time. “To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful.”

Among McCulloch’s critics is Missouri state Senator Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis), who has led a petition drive that has gathered 26,000 signatures demanding McCulloch’s removal.

“He doesn’t have the fortitude to do the right thing when it comes to prosecuting police officers,” Nasheed told CNN in an interview that aired Tuesday. “His cousin is a police officer. His mother works for the police department. His uncle is a police officer, and, again, we think that his judgment will be clogged as a result of all of those occurrences.”

Among other African-American leaders taking that stance are U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis), and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

Dooley on Tuesday accused McCulloch of “a history of insensitivity to the African-American community.”

“He’s the wrong person to be prosecuting this,” Dooley said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch. “He’s the wrong person at the wrong time. The African-American community has no confidence in him getting justice for the African-American community or for the Brown family.”

Dooley acknowledged that “Mr. McColloch and I do not get along.” The animosity was stirred, in part, by the prosecuting attorney’s endorsement of Councilman Steve Stenger in the August 5 Democratic primary that signaled the end of Dooley’s 11-year tenure as county executive. McCulloch, who had backed Dooley in three previous bids for re-election, broke with the incumbent over what he termed “corruption” in televised commercials on behalf of Stenger’s candidacy.

McCulloch couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday evening. But he acknowledged in an interview with KMOX Radio that Nixon could remove him from the case.

“I certainly have no intention of walking away from the responsibilities that the people have entrusted me with, but I also understand if the governor were to do that, he has that right.”

Brown, 18, was shot and killed August 9 by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, after a confrontation. An autopsy concluded he was shot six times.

There has been no dispute about the fact that Brown was unarmed, nor that it was Wilson who shot and killed him. But witnesses have given conflicting accounts of whether Brown at the time was struggling with Wilson, or was trying to surrender.

That’s a question that’s currently under scrutiny by twin local and federal investigations. McCulloch’s office will present evidence to the standing St. Louis County grand jury beginning Wednesday.

“We are going to attempt to start giving evidence to the grand jury (Wednesday), depending upon the ability to get the witnesses in and the witnesses showing up,” said Ed Magee, spokesman for McCulloch.

McGee said the case “will be handled by the attorney regularly assigned to the grand jury” rather than McCulloch himself. However, McCulloch, as the county prosecuting attorney, is ultimately in charge of it — unless he were to recuse himself.

Among other points in Nixon’s interview with the Post-Dispatch Tuesday:

-Nixon said he talked with President Barack Obama Monday, and that Obama pressed him about his decision to bring in the Missouri National Guard, though he didn’t actively discourage it. “He asked what were the rules of engagement, and what the thought process was.”

“He understands,” Nixon added. “Here’s a fellow who’s had to order bombs dropped on Iraq. … I think he certainly understood my reasoning.”

-He credited the protesters with “forcing all policy makers” in America to focus on issues like race, poverty and police relationships with communities. He stressed that he believes most of the violence in Ferguson has been instigated by “violent criminals” coming in from outside the community, he and said he defines them completely differently from the local protesters.

-He acknowledged he is worried that the violence could intensify depending on what happens in the shooting investigation. “I think all of us see a tinderbox of emotion and energy out there.”

-He brushed aside criticism that his handling of issue has been inconsistent and ineffective. “If you’re catching a lot of flak, it means you’re over the target.”

-He expressed pride in the fact there there have been no further fatalities “since the horrific death of an 18-year-old shot in the street,” and he credited police restraint and the non-violent elements within the protesters for avoiding further fatalities.

Photo: GovernorJayNixon via Flickr

Tense Tally In Ferguson Includes Fires, Shootings, And 31 Arrests

By Kevin Mcdermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON, Mo. — Two men were shot during the chaos of demonstrations late Monday and early Tuesday near West Florissant and Canfield, police confirmed. Officers weren’t involved in the shootings. There was no immediate information on the identities or conditions of the victims.

Police also confirmed that 31 people were arrested, including some who had come from as far as New York and California.

In an emotional news conference around 2:30 a.m. in the area of the protests, Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson said the shootings demonstrate “a dangerous dynamic in the night” in which a few people determined to cause trouble can pull a whole crowd into it.

While he acknowledged there is currently no curfew in place, he urged legitimate protesters come out during the day from now on, rather than at night.

“We do not want to lose another life in this community,” said Johnson.

His comments came after a night punctuated by bottles thrown at police, two fires in the area, and scattered reports of gunfire.

“Our officers came under heavy fire,” said Johnson. He stressed that “not a single bullet was fired by officers.”

Johnson, who was put on charge of security in Ferguson last week under orders by Gov. Jay Nixon, appeared before a table that displayed two handguns that officers had confiscated in an unrelated incident during the night’s strife, as well as a Molotov cocktail.

Johnson said the weapons were confiscated from “violent agitators” who were using other peaceful protests as “cover” to cause conflicts with police.

“This nation is watching each and every one of us,” said Johnson, who was visibly angry and emotional during the news conference. “I am not going to let the criminals that have come here from across this country, or live in this neighborhood, define this community.”

Johnson also lectured reporters at the scene, telling them they were interfering with police and putting themselves in danger by failing to immediately clear areas when asked to by officers. He also implored reporters to “not glamorize the acts of criminals.”

Some reporters at the news conference pushed back, saying he was infringing on their ability to do their jobs by asking them to stay separate from protesters.

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

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Missouri Governor Pledges ‘Different Tone’ For Authorities As Highway Patrol Takes Over

By Kevin McDermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON, Mo. — Facing a withering national judgment that a community in his state had come to look like “a war zone,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered on Thursday that the Missouri State Highway Patrol take over security of Ferguson from St. Louis County police and vowed “a different tone” to that police presence.

“What’s gone on here over the last few days is not what Missouri’s about, it’s not what Ferguson’s about,” said Nixon, referring to imagery of tear gas, police in body armor, automatic weapons pointed at unarmed civilians, and questionable arrests.

“(It’s) a Missouri community, but lately it’s looked a little bit more like a war zone, and that’s unacceptable,” Nixon said.

The move appeared to calm the situation along West Florissant Avenue, the Ferguson thoroughfare marked by looting and clashes with police earlier this week.

Tear gas, smoke bombs, and riot police were absent Thursday night as nearly 1,000 people gathered peacefully on the sidewalk chanting “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” when they weren’t responding to the cacophony of car horns honking to support their efforts to protest the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer.

The new face of security in the racially tense conflict is Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, a native of the region who is black. Appearing with Nixon at a north county news conference, Johnson said his command will employ “a different approach.”

“I understand the anger and fear that the citizens of Ferguson are feeling, and our police officers will respect both of those,” Johnson said. He later made good on that vow by marching with a procession of peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson.

Part of the new approach, Johnson said, will be “making sure we’re not taking resources out there that we don’t need.”

That is a response to criticism from across the country of police confronting protesters with weapons and vehicles that look like they belong on a battlefield rather than a suburban street.

While Nixon clearly was cautious not to say it, the move is likely to be interpreted as a criticism of the way St. Louis County police have handled security in the north county community since nightly violence erupted after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot to death by a police officer on Saturday.

Police also came under blistering criticism Wednesday night when two national journalists were arrested and tear gas was fired on a television crew.

“All of us have seen some level of escalation, and we’ve certainly seen some level of escalation of the arms that have been used to deter as well as some of the conduct,” said Nixon. That was as close as he came to outright criticism of county police.

When pressed on the issue, he said only: “I’m not looking backward, I’m looking forward.”

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar declined to comment on the change in command over Ferguson.

But St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch blasted Nixon’s decision.

“It’s shameful what he did today, he had no legal authority to do that. To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful,” McCulloch said. “For Nixon to never talk to the commanders in the field and come in here and take this action is disgraceful.

“I hope I’m wrong, but I think what Nixon did may put a lot of people in danger.”

Also Thursday, GOP House Majority Leader Tom Diehl said Nixon should declare a state of emergency and put Ferguson under a curfew.

Earlier in the day, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson signaled a change of strategy, describing a plan to try to reduce tensions by allowing protesters to use sidewalks while keeping streets open to traffic.

Jackson said officials want to tone down the confrontations and will talk about “not only the tactics but the appearance” of police in riot gear. He said tactical units would remain on standby in case of trouble.

But when pressed about use of tear gas on non-violent demonstrators, Jackson suggested that people need to distance themselves from those who provoke police with aggressive acts or threats.

“There is gunfire. There are fire bombs being thrown at the police,” he said.

The issue of the militaristic police response has become almost as central to the Ferguson story as the racial tension. Pundits and public officials have been holding up the conflict here as an example of what they say is a national trend toward militaristic weapons and tactics among civilian police.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), speaking to area residents at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant on Thursday, stressed the need to “demilitarize the police response.” The comment drew a standing ovation.

Nixon acknowledged the racial component to the strife, and the community’s history of police-resident tensions. “This feels a little like an old wound that has been hit again.”

As state attorney general for 16 years, Nixon alienated black leaders when he tried to end court involvement in St. Louis public schools and phase out the voluntary busing program. While he moved to patch those relationships when he first ran for governor in 2008, they are still somewhat strained.

Nixon began Thursday with a phone conversation with President Barack Obama.

“He wanted me specifically to thank the faith leaders and other community leaders who are leading with vigor but with peace,” Nixon said of Obama during remarks to community organizers and clergy gathered at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant.

In a short address Thursday, Obama called for “peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson” while expressing his concern for the violent turn of events.

“Let us remember we are all part of one American family,” Obama said. “We are united in common values and that includes belief in equality under the law, basic respect for public order, and the right of peaceful protest.”

Obama said he was briefed Thursday on the situation by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. He criticized the arrest of journalists, said there is no excuse for police use of force against peaceful protesters, and that there is “never an excuse for violence against police or those who would use this as a cover for vandalism or looting.”

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

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Ferguson Police ID Officer Darren Wilson As Shooter Of Michael Brown

By Kevin Mcdermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON, Mo. — Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson this morning identified Darren Wilson as the officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager last Saturday.

Wilson is a 6-year veteran of the force. He was placed on paid administrative leave after the shooting.

Michael Brown, 18, was shot multiple times Saturday afternoon in the 2900 block of Canfield Drive.

The 2014 graduate of Normandy High School was due to start classes at Vatterott College on Monday. His mother, Lesley McSpadden, said her son was walking to his grandmother’s when he was gunned down.

His death prompted almost immediate protests in Ferguson, including Sunday night demonstrations that led to rioting and looting. Protesters looted and then set fire to a QuikTrip store and vandalized others in the area near where Brown was killed.

Demonstrations and protests escalated, reaching a climax on Wednesday night when St. Louis County officers in full riot gear responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and armored vehicles. About a dozen people were arrested, including two national reporters and a St. Louis alderman.

That led to Thursday’s change in direction — when Gov. Jay Nixon put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of the security in Ferguson and removed St. Louis County police.

The change was dramatic and immediate, as Thursday night’s police presence lacked gas masks, smoke bombs, and military gear. Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, the patrol officer put in charge, walked and talked with protesters, exchanging hugs and answering questions.

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

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