FERGUSON, Mo. - Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the unrest the country has witnessed here over the past two weeks was emblematic of deeper problems that exist across the nation, where a corrosive mistrust exists in certain places between the police and the people they are meant to serve.
“History simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson,” Holder said during a news conference in Washington.
One day after meeting with the family of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer on Aug. 9, Holder vowed that “the Justice Department will continue to stand with Ferguson.”
On Wednesday night, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department released a cellphone video taken by a witness showing the shooting of a black man by the police Tuesday. In contrast to the slow reaction by officials in Ferguson to the shooting of Brown, Sam Dotson, the St. Louis police chief, rushed to the scene of the shooting to provide information to the public and try to prevent the episode from fueling tensions in the community.
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Dotson said that two officers were confronted by a 25-year-old man, Kajieme Powell, who was behaving “erratically” and brandishing a knife. The officers repeatedly warned, “Stop, drop the knife,” but Powell refused, Dotson said. When Powell got within three or four feet of the officers, the chief said, they shot and killed him.
Dotson has said that the video taken by the bystander confirmed the Police Department’s version of events. Although the video showed the man walking toward the officers and saying, “Shoot me now,” it was unclear whether the knife was raised when he was shot. At least 12 shots can be heard in the video.
Dotson said the police released the video in the interest of transparency.
“I don’t think any of us can deny that the tension, not only in St. Louis but around the country and the world because of the activity in Ferguson over the last 10 or 12 days, certainly has led to us making sure that we got this right,” he said.
The handling of the shooting in St. Louis stood in marked contrast with how the authorities handled the shooting of Brown. In Ferguson, authorities released virtually no information, refusing for more than a week to even say how many times Brown had been shot.
During his visit to Ferguson on Wednesday, Holder described how the shooting and the strife that has followed affected him both personally and professionally.
“I am the attorney general of the United States, but I am also a black man,” Holder said during one meeting in Ferguson, according to a transcript provided by the Department of Justice. “I’ve confronted this myself.”
He recalled being pulled over in New Jersey once and having his car searched, for seemingly no reason.
“I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me,” he said.
“The national outcry we have seen speaks to a sense of mistrust” that exists beyond Ferguson, Holder said Thursday.
“This has engendered a conversation I think we should have,” he said during the brief news conference. “It is time to make concrete steps.”
He also said that it was important for people not to let their frustration turn to disorder, and that he was encouraged by the relatively peaceful protests in Ferguson on Wednesday.
The demonstrations overnight ended without the clashes between the police and protesters that have been a regular occurrence since Brown was shot and killed.
At times Wednesday, the protesters marching along West Florissant Avenue numbered only 60.
Capt. Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol described the gathering, held on the same site as many of the recent confrontations, as calmer and smaller than in the past. There was light traffic not only on the street, he said, but also over police radios. That reflected a night during which “there were no confrontations,” he said, other than a single bottle thrown at police officers and a tense moment when two protesters turned out in support of the police officer, Darren Wilson, who killed Brown.
All told, officers made six arrests related to the protests, far fewer than the 47 people who were detained Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, said Johnson, whose agency is overseeing security here.
“The trend is good,” he said, noting that the crowd of protesters appeared to be diminishing compared with recent nights. A brief but drenching rain might have had some effect, although a few protesters spoke of weariness, too.
“I feel like they’re kind of giving up,” said Terrell Wilheight, an 18-year-old resident who came out to support the protests but mostly watched from the sidewalk. Standing shirtless under a golf umbrella, he said that his friends had stopped coming after police shot tear gas at them.
Many of the protesters have called for the prosecution of Wilson.
To the surprise of onlookers, a man and woman showed up Wednesday holding signs in support of Wilson. Both declined to give their full names. The man, who identified himself as Chuck, 57, said he grew up in Ferguson. His partner, Dawn, 39, said they now lived in St. Louis.
The pair said they had come out to remind everyone that there was another side to the tragic story. “We want to know what happened,” Chuck said. Of Wilson, he added, “He’s pretty much been persecuted in the media.”
At first, passing protesters gently encouraged them to be careful. As more protesters gathered around them, shouting and jeering began.
Surrounded by television reporters and a larger group of protesters, Chuck and Dawn began walking up West Florissant Avenue. After a water bottle was thrown and a man was placed under arrest, police officers formed a ring around the two and then drove them away in a police SUV.