Local police in Ferguson, Missouri, were stripped yesterday of their authority after days of violent clashes during which police used surplus military weapons against crowds protesting the police slaying of an unarmed black teen.
The Missouri Highway Patrol seized control of the St. Louis suburb following a fourth night of angry confrontations Wednesday over the Aug. 9 killing. An unnamed police officer shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who was set to start college this week, 10 times in the head and chest.
Brown, who was black, was apparently slain after a verbal altercation with the white cop who shot him. Ferguson is 70-percent black, but nearly the entire police force is white.
On Wednesday night, officers in riot gear used tear-gas on the crowd and arrested peaceful black demonstrators in scenes that dredged up nightmare memories of the 1960s black civil rights era. Commandeering armored vehicles, police were equipped with short-barreled 5.56-mm assault rifles that can hit specific targets as far away as 500 meters, according to published reports.
Assessing the accelerating events of the past several days, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon yesterday ordered the highway patrol, led by Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black, to take control of the situation. Nixon’s decision was announced shortly after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke with Brown’s family and President Barack Obama spoke out publicly about the incident for the first time.
The change in law-enforcement will ensure “that 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, as quoted by The Associated Press.
Ferguson residents have complained about police officers’ response beginning with the immediate aftermath of Brown’s shooting, when they brought out dogs for crowd control. County polic led both the investigation of Brown’s shooting and attempts to keep the peace in the small city.
County Police Chief Jon Belmar said his officers showed “an incredible amount of restraint” after being showered with rocks and bottles and having their vehicles destroyed.
As with last year’s Trayvon Martin shooting, social media brought international attention to the tragedy. Ferguson spawned a proliferation of hashtags and was the dominant subject yesterday on Twitter, Facebook and other sites, according to the AP.
Journalists and protesters offered real-time pictures, videos and text reports — and the world responded with outrage.
Police have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car. The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times.
But Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown when the shooting occurred, had a much different story. He told reporters that the officer ordered them out of the street, then grabbed his friend’s neck and tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He says Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said federal investigators have interviewed eyewitnesses to the shooting. A person familiar with the matter, who spoke with AP on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said federal authorities have interviewed Johnson.
Rallying communities from coast to coast under the Twitter hashtag #NMOS14, activists organized vigils for Brown in over 100 U.S. communities this evening, including at such historic sites as the St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, Boston Common and New York’s Union Square. The vigils featured a minute of silence at 7:20 p.m. EDT.
“We are not protesting. We are not going to be chanting or anything of that nature,” Chantelle Batiste, an organizer of the vigil at New Orleans’ 225-year-old Lafayette Square, told the local NBC affiliate. “We want to make sure everyone comes like-minded and everyone stays peaceful.”