By Tina Susman and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
FERGUSON, Mo. — After a night of uneasy calm in Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by unrest since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the county prosecutor was expected Wednesday to begin presenting evidence in the case to a grand jury, which would decide whether Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot the unarmed black 18-year-old, should be indicted.
Also, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., was to visit Ferguson to check on progress made in a Justice Department investigation into the Aug. 9 shooting, which is being conducted along with the county probe. He is also scheduled to meet with community leaders and elected officials.
In anticipation of the possible hearing, a crowd of media and about 50 demonstrators converged Wednesday outside the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in the nearby St. Louis suburb of Clayton. The presentation of evidence to a grand jury there was dependent on the availability of witnesses, said Ed Magee, a spokesman for the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch.
Police have said that Wilson shot Brown in self-defense. Some witnesses have said that Wilson was the aggressor in an altercation between the two men and fired at Brown as the 18-year-old’s hands were up in surrender.
Unlike those on most previous nights, demonstrations Tuesday in Ferguson in connection with the shooting were largely peaceful and no tear gas was fired by law enforcement. At least 47 people were arrested as of early Wednesday, mainly for failure to disperse, officials said.
Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson said he hoped the situation represents a turning point in the consecutive nights of chaotic, often violent protests in which heavily armed police have fired tear gas to disperse unruly crowds. Several local businesses have been vandalized by looting and broken windows, and one has burned.
Protester Steven Wash, a 26-year-old cook who lives in Ferguson, said the filing of criminal charges against Wilson would not be enough to satisfy what he and other demonstrators say are long-standing grievances rooted in a local power structure that they see as racist.
“It seems like all of St. Louis County is against us,” said Wash, who is black, as he energetically waved a white flag early Wednesday morning at motorists driving down West Florissant Avenue, a commercial strip that has been the site of nightly protests. “I would like to tell Holder to get all these police out of here and give us some people who are with us, not against us.”
Just Tuesday, Wash noted, police shot and killed another young black man. Police say the man had a knife, but Wash questioned why they could not have tasered him instead of using lethal force.
“Why can’t you taser our black men? Why do you have to shoot them in cold blood?” he said.
Wash was among a group of seven men gathered on the side of the busy road early Wednesday. A couple of blocks away, volunteers picked up plastic water bottles and other debris left from the previous night’s marches.
State troopers sat in two cars across the four-lane road from Wash and his fellow demonstrators but did not bother them. Some with Wash clearly were exhausted from their all-nighter: One man sat down and fell asleep as the morning rush hour buzzed past.
Eric Shelquist, 31, a student in urban affairs from St. Louis, was one of two white faces in the group. He held a sign reading “RIP Mike Brown.”
Shelquist said he had been out only since 4:30 a.m., but that he had taken part in a march shortly after Brown’s killing and felt the need to get out again and join the protesters.
Just sitting back and expressing support isn’t sufficient in cases of injustice, Shelquist said. “I think every non-racist also has the responsibility to be anti-racist,” he said.
Like most protesters, clergy and community leaders who have kept watch on Ferguson’s demonstrations, Shelquist said there was no quick way to end the current unrest. Any resolution will take time, he said.
“I think the thing that would end this would be if they knew the police had to be accountable for their actions,” he said. “If the community trusted the police not to abuse their power, I think that would go a long way toward restoring trust.”
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster briefly came to the streets Tuesday night to address demonstrators. His spokeswoman issued a statement in his name voicing confidence in St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, responsible for presenting the Brown-Wilson case to the grand jury.
“It is my understanding he has placed the matter in the hands of two highly experienced prosecutors, one of whom is African American,” Koster said in the statement. “I trust in their ability to diligently and fairly present the evidence in this case.”
A group of African-American attorneys has called on McCulloch to remove himself from the case, accusing him of bias. He has declined to do so.
Governor Jay Nixon said he would not call on McCulloch to step aside from the case. In an evening statement, the Democratic governor said: “From the outset, I have been clear about the need to have a vigorous prosecution of this case, and that includes minimizing any potential legal uncertainty. I am not asking St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCullough to recuse himself from this case.
“There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse” himself, Nixon continued. “Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution.”
Holder has said federal investigators have interviewed hundreds of people in connection with the Brown killing. A federal autopsy performed at Holder’s orders showed that Brown was shot six times, officials said.
In an op-ed article posted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, titled “A Message to the People of Ferguson,” Holder strongly defended his decision to push forward with a civil rights investigation. Local law enforcement officials have been accused of not moving fast enough in investigating the matter.
“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.
“This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson,” he added. “Our investigation into his matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent.”
The attorney general said that about 40 FBI agents and some of the Justice Department’s “most experienced prosecutors have been deployed to lead this process, with the assistance of the United States attorney in St. Louis.”
Holder warned protesters in Ferguson against looting and violence, calling those who engage in such activities a small minority who only “seriously undermine, rather than advance, the cause of justice.” He added, “Violence cannot be condoned.”
Federal law enforcement officials said a U.S. military medical examiner had concluded the federal autopsy of Brown and it showed six gunshot wounds, according to a government source who asked not to be identified. Holder confirmed in his op-ed article that the autopsy was complete.
The federal autopsy was the third postmortem to be performed on Brown. The first was performed by the St. Louis County medical examiner, and the second was on behalf of Brown’s family.
The results of the county autopsy have not been made public. The private autopsy, like the federal examination, showed six gunshot wounds.
Holder has said that federal officials’ civil rights investigation will review the county-performed autopsy.
AFP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais