FERGUSON, United States: The United States’ most senior law enforcement official sat down with college kids, community leaders and angry residents Wednesday in a suburb shaken by more than a week of racially charged protests.
Attorney General Eric Holder was in Ferguson, Missouri, to oversee the federal response to the August 9 killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American shot dead by a white police officer.
Holder said he had assigned the Justice Department’s “most experienced agents and prosecutors” to investigate Brown’s death, amid local suspicion that police will protect one of their own.
“Our investigation is different,” Holder said, flanked by senior federal officials based in Missouri, including FBI Agent in Charge William Woods and US Attorney Rich Callahan.
“We’re looking for possible violations of federal civil rights statutes,” the attorney general explained, promising a fair inquiry into what happened in the deadly encounter between Brown and the officer.
Before meeting FBI agents, he added that he hoped his visit “will have a calming influence on the area.”
Holder also met students at the local community college where Brown planned to study, then joined area leaders who have been trying to calm passions since protests erupted on August 10.
One of the students who met Holder was Molyric Welch, 27, who said her 31-year-old brother died of cardiac arrest after Ferguson police had allegedly shot him with a stun gun in 2011.
“A lot has happened here,” Welch said, adding that Holder had promised her “things were going to change.”
Meanwhile, a grand jury was to begin hearing witnesses to Brown’s killing, with widespread calls for the police officer to be put on trial for the fatal shooting, which many here see as murder.
Brown’s remains are undergoing three separate autopsies — by local authorities, the family and Holder’s Justice Department.
In an op-ed column in the St Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, Holder pledged what he called a full, fair and independent investigation.
On Tuesday, protesters threw glass and plastic bottles of water and urine towards the end of an otherwise peaceful demonstration.
Police intervened, made some arrests and seized three guns, said Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson.
But Johnson, who has been given charge of security in Ferguson, stressed that protesters did not fire guns at police and officers refrained from using tear gas, unlike Monday night.
He credited community leaders, activists and clergy for keeping the rally peaceful and preventing it from being taken over by what he called violent “agitators.”
Police with riot shields and armored vehicles kept a low profile, and intervened only around midnight to push the crowd towards a newly designated public assembly area in a former car dealership.
Mingling with citizens at the outset of the march, Johnson — charged with restoring order in the mainly black town of 21,000 — denounced what he called “criminal elements” who, after dark on Sunday and Monday, had ignored police orders to disperse.
“Cowards hide in the dark, and it’s time for that to stop,” he told reporters.
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” protesters chanted at the same time, holding their hands in the air in what has become the signature slogan of Ferguson’s frustration with its overwhelmingly white police department.
On Wednesday, Johnson told reporters that the community was “turning against the criminals,” but that residents and local police still have to “grow” together.
“The community does not feel there is a connection. And that has to change,” he said.
Meanwhile Brown’s family was preparing for his funeral, which their lawyer said would take place on Monday.
Police have identified the white police officer who shot Brown in broad daylight on a residential street as Darren Wilson, 28, in the force for six years.
Brown’s family wants Wilson — currently on leave from his duties — charged with murder for “executing” their son.
Police say that Brown was rushing at the officer, but other witnesses say the teenager — who was about to start vocational college — had his hands up, ready to surrender.
Brown was fatally shot less than half-an-hour after the theft of a box of cigars from a liquor store. Police named Brown as the suspect in that case, further fueling local anger.
A forensic pathologist retained by Brown’s family said that the teen was shot at least six times — twice in the head.