Responding to criticism of how police have handled five days of protests following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday sent the Missouri Highway Patrol to oversee security in this St. Louis suburb.
“Ferguson will not be defined as a community that was torn apart by violence but will be known as a community that pulled together to overcome it,” Nixon said.
Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who grew up in the community, ordered armored vehicles kept away, told his troopers not to carry their gas masks and announced: “We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together.”
True to his word, he spent the evening amid protesters on West Florissant Avenue, shaking hands and reassuring them that as long as they remained peaceful, so would police.
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One man approached Johnson to tell him that his niece had been hit with tear gas during the demonstrations.
“Tell her Capt. Johnson is sorry and he apologizes,” Johnson replied.
As the evening faded into darkness, the protests appeared a world apart from the earlier demonstrations, with a light, even festive atmosphere and no hint of violence. The streets filled with music, free food and even laughter.
The hostility even was gone near the shell of a QuikTrip that had been looted and set on fire Sunday. In a dramatic departure from previous nights, there was not a SWAT team in sight. Instead of snipers looming over protesters in military-style uniforms, police mingled and joked with the crowd.
“It feels as though a thousand pounds has been lifted off my shoulders,” said Missouri Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat who represents Ferguson. “Finally, after three nights of tear gas and rubber bullets, these young people are finally able to express themselves without fear.”
Protester Cleo Willis said the change was palpable.
“You can feel it. You can see it,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to ride that feeling.”
Crowds have gathered to protest since Saturday’s shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. Sunday night, some residents looted stores, damaged buildings and vandalized property. Until Thursday, officers from multiple departments in riot gear and military equipment used tear gas and smoke bombs to repel protesters.
Police said they were simply responding to protesters, some of whom threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers. Local officers remained involved in community security Thursday, but under the Highway Patrol’s leadership.
Nixon, who started the day speaking to a gathering of religious leaders in a nearby church, said it was time to set a different tone.
“We have to make sure we allow peaceful and appropriate protests, that we use force only when necessary, that we step back a little bit and let some of the energy be felt in this region appropriately,” Nixon said.
The Highway Patrol intervention came as President Barack Obama spoke publicly for the first time about Saturday’s fatal shooting and the subsequent violence that threatened to tear apart Ferguson, a town that is nearly 70 percent black patrolled by a nearly all-white police force.
Obama said there was “no excuse” for violence either against the police or by officers against peaceful protesters.
“Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” Obama said while speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation. “Let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family.”
Attorney General Eric Holder announced a series of steps his department was taking, including a meeting Thursday with civic leaders to calm tensions, and an escalating civil rights probe in which federal investigators already have interviewed witnesses to the shooting.
Across the country, including in Kansas City, communities held peaceful vigils Thursday to remember Brown and other victims of police force.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill arrived in Ferguson on Thursday, declaring it was time to “demilitarize” the police response.
“I think the police response has become part of the problem as opposed to being part of the solution,” she said.
Local officials defended the police actions. St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schellman told The Associated Press that officers on Wednesday night tossed tear gas to disperse a large crowd of protesters after some threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers.
“In talking to these guys, it is scary,” Schellman said of officers on the front lines. “They hear gunshots going off and they don’t know where they’re coming from.”
Nixon said he is hopeful that by using a “softer front” and allowing protesters some room to breathe, the constitutional rights of those wishing to express their anger can be protected without sacrificing public safety.
“The key to this,” Nixon said, “is to get control, let voices be heard and make sure we protect property.”
While applauding the tactical shift, St. Louis resident Palmer Alexander III said he wishes the governor had acted sooner.
“We’ve seen five days of violence,” said Alexander, who has spent several days in Ferguson attending the protests. “Where has he been?”
Nixon balked at the criticism he has faced for a slow response, saying that he has been monitoring the situation and has been in contact throughout the week with local officials.
“If at all possible, you want solutions to be done as locally as possible,” Nixon said. “You really want folks to feel engaged so you don’t just get a short-term operational gain but a long-term trust build.”