Missouri’s governor ordered National Guard troops to withdraw from the riot-weary town of Ferguson on Thursday as tensions eased after nearly two weeks of racially charged protests over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
Demonstrators were orderly for a second straight evening on Thursday, the calmest night in the St. Louis suburb since 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down by a white police officer on Aug. 9 under disputed circumstances.
Even as scores of boisterous but peaceful protesters returned to the streets, Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., urged them during a CNN interview “to go back to your regular life.”
He expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support but criticized thugs and outside agitators who police have blamed for much of the lawlessness that accompanied earlier protests.
“This looting, all this other stuff … it’s not helping our boy. It’s doing nothing but causing more pain, plus it’s shaming his name,” Brown’s father said. “Go back home to your family … Hug your kids. Hold onto them tight. Keep them close.”
Ferguson erupted in anger after the teenager’s slaying, with nightly rallies frequently punctuated by looting, vandalism and clashes between protesters and heavily armed riot police, often ending in volleys of tear gas and dozens of arrests.
The turmoil has cast the community of 21,000 people into the international spotlight as an emblem of often-troubled U.S. race relations.
Although Ferguson is predominantly African American, its political leadership, police department and public school administration are dominated by whites. Civil rights activists say Brown’s death was the culmination of years of police unfairly targeting blacks.
With civic leaders and clergy urging protesters in recent days to maintain order and leave the streets after dark, crowds have grown thinner in number and have become more subdued.
“I think we’ve turned a corner,” said State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, a black officer placed in command last week of a local police force widely criticized for heavy-handed tactics that seemed to be stoking civil unrest.
On Thursday night, Johnson and many of his officers mingled casually among protesters. The police presence was generally more low key than it had been since Brown was shot, but the night was not without incident.
Police made a number of isolated arrests of people suspected of instigating the earlier unrest, and tensions heightened briefly as protesters clamored around arresting officers, before members of the clergy members moved in to calm the crowd.
National Guard troops, who were deployed to Ferguson to assist police at the height of disturbances but have kept a relatively low profile during demonstrations, were ordered by Governor Jay Nixon to begin pulling out of the community.
“We continue to see improvement,” Nixon said in a statement.
Regaining mother’s trust
A day earlier, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson to meet Brown’s parents and other residents, and to review the status of a federal civil rights investigation he has ordered into Brown’s slaying.
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, who viewed her son’s body for the first time on Wednesday at a local morgue shortly before meeting Holder, said his assurances helped restore her faith that justice could be done.
“Just hearing the words come directly from his mouth, face-to-face, made me feel like, one day, I will,” she told CNN on Thursday. “And I’m not saying today, or yesterday, but one day, they will regain my trust.”
Brown’s parents and supporters have been calling for the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson, 28, the police officer who shot their son. Wilson has been placed on leave and has gone into seclusion.
A local grand jury met on Wednesday to begin hearing evidence in the case, a process that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said could last into mid-October.
Brown’s family and protesters are demanding that the probe be turned over to a special prosecutor, saying McCulloch has a record of discriminatory handling of cases involving police accused of misconduct against blacks.
McCulloch, whose father was a police officer killed in the line of duty by a black man, has promised a fair and impartial investigation. State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed arrived at McCulloch’s office on Thursday with petitions calling for his removal from the case.
“I am here to deliver a message to Bob McCulloch that the people do not have any confidence in him,” Nasheed said. “The people’s opinion is that he totally has no ability to do the right thing.”
Signs of easing tension
Despite lingering expressions of anger and distrust, the atmosphere in Ferguson appeared to be growing calmer.
“Things are de-escalating,” said Roy Harris outside Original Reds B-B-Q, located on West Florissant Avenue, where many of the protests have taken place.
The restaurant has boarded up its windows, but written in large letters in red paint on the plywood planks is the promise: “We will be back.” Workers were selling sandwiches in the parking lot next to an outdoor meat smoker.
Only six people were arrested overnight between Wednesday and Thursday, far fewer than the scores detained on previous nights. As of Thursday afternoon, the total number of arrests since the uproar began in Ferguson had climbed to just over 200, most for failing to heed orders to disperse, police said.
Outside a fast-food restaurant blocks away from where Brown was shot, a small group of young black men held a homemade wanted poster for Wilson.
“For us he is a wanted man. It is time for calm and peace but only if they bring him to justice,” said 23-year-old Dontey Carter, shirtless with a scarf wrapped around his head.