FERGUSON, Mo. – Federal and state officials unveiled a sweeping response Thursday to violent clashes between police and protesters over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, with Missouri taking over security operations from local police and authorities agreeing to accept Justice Department help in handling protests.
Speaking from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he is on vacation, President Barack Obama called for national unity after he police shooting Saturday of Michael Brown, 18, in this St. Louis suburb.
“Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” Obama said. “Let's remember that we're all part of one American family.”
Attorney General Eric Holder then announced a series of steps his department is taking, including a meeting held Thursday with civic leaders to calm tensions and an escalating civil rights probe in which federal investigators have already interviewed witnesses to the shooting.
Even as dozens of protesters continued their campaign near the shooting scene for a fifth day on Thursday, state officials followed the federal lead.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said the Missouri Highway Patrol would take over security operations in Ferguson, led by Capt. Ronald Johnson, a black officer who grew up in the area.
“We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we're in this together,” Johnson said.
As a result, the heavy riot armor, the SWAT trucks with sniper posts and the gas masks were gone from the streets of Ferguson on Thursday night, and Johnson marched with the crowd, eliciting cheers from the protesters.
Johnson vowed to not blockade the streets, to set up a media staging center, and to ensure that residents' rights to assemble and protest were not infringed upon.
“I understand the anger and fear that the citizens of Ferguson are feeling, and our officers will respect both of those,” said Johnson, who has been the head of the highway patrol's troops in the region since 2002. “I'm not afraid to be in this crowd.”
Obama's remarks were the most visible step in a rapid coalescence among political and community leaders to tamp down the violence, as images of riot police, tear gas and government intervention provoked a national debate about race and justice that recalled civil rights battles of a half-century ago.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle rushed Thursday – five days after the shooting – to condemn the tactics of the nearly all-white police force in the predominantly black town.
But on the ground in Ferguson, the support from politicians at all levels was met with skepticism, and it was unclear how much effect it would have.
Many protesters are vowing to continue their campaign.
On the fourth day of demonstrations, the crowds still rivaled the size at comparable points on previous days, with dozens lining the burned-out gas station.