FERGUSON — After several nights of protests that elicited heavy police response, arrests of journalists and politicians and increased tensions, elected leaders from the local to executive level are finally speaking up and crafting changes to enforcement and communication in the aftermath of the death of 18-year-old Ferguson resident Michael Brown.
Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill each spoke of peace and moving away from the seemingly militarized response to protesters in Ferguson at a Florissant church Thursday morning.
“I’m sorry I was late, I was on the phone with the President of the United States,” Nixon told a gathered group of concerned citizens. He delivered wishes of peace from the President and First Lady and announced there would be “operational shifts” to law enforcement in Ferguson following several nights of serious police response.
“It has been a deeply challenging week in a lot of ways,” Nixon said.
Nixon hit on a few points before listening to the thoughts of those gathered. He mentioned that being a community of faith is an important path to justice and peace, that he would be speaking later about the operational changes pending and the need to allow people to express their “energy” in an appropriate way that is within their rights.
“I understand and know that these transitionary, these difficult moments define us,” Nixon said.
Before Nixon spoke, McCaskill said she was there to “hear from her bosses,” the people who put her in office and that her goal was to demilitarize the police response in Ferguson.
Shortly after Nixon spoke in Florissant, President Barack Obama authorized the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to conduct their own investigations into the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
“This morning I received a thorough update on the situation from Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been following it and been in communication with his team,” Obama said. “I’ve already tasked the Department of Justice and the FBI to independently investigate the death of Michael Brown, along with local officials on the ground. The Department of Justice is also consulting with local authorities about ways they can maintain public safety without restricting the right of peaceful protest and while avoiding unnecessary escalation. I made clear to the Attorney General that we should do what is necessary to help determine exactly what happened and to see that justice is done.”
Incidents have continued nightly in the days since Brown, an unarmed teenager, was killed by a Ferguson police officer on Saturday. Protesters have been met with tear gas and rubber bullets as they await the name of the officer to be released, something Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said will be discussed by authorities Thursday afternoon. Wednesday, two journalists were arrested in a nearby McDonald’s restaurant without cause.
Jackson told reporters Thursday that a Molotov cocktail, an improvised incendiary weapon often made by pouring gasoline inside a glass bottle and lighting a rag stuck into the bottle’s neck, was thrown at officers during the protests Wednesday night. Despite some aggressive behavior from both sides, Jackson said nobody has been severely hurt or killed in the protests. He said one officer suffered a broken ankle from being struck by a thrown brick.
During the press conference with reporters Thursday, Jackson said he was unaware of the arrest of two journalists and that he was also unaware that a television crew from Al Jazeera America was shot at and tear gassed by officers the previous evening.
A reporter from Al Jazeera pressed Jackson on the issue and the chief responded only with, “The media is not a target.”
Jackson said there would be a meeting later to discuss the potential of releasing the name of the officer that killed Brown.
Jackson also announced the police response on Thursday evening would facilitate peaceful protests on the sidewalks of West Florissant Avenue.
Obama condemned the actions of the police and the civilians who looted city businesses and destroyed a QuikTrip in the immediate aftermath Sunday.
“When something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have the responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities,” Obama said. “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting.
“There is also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests, or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs. They report to the American people what they see on the ground. Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority.”
Bloomberg News U.S. House reporter Derek Wallbank tweeted Thursday that Nixon plans to relieve the St. Louis County police force of its duty in this matter, but Nixon only said there would be a 3 p.m. press conference discussing “operational changes” while speaking to community leaders at the Florissant church Thursday afternoon.
Aside from allegations of excessive force used to control the protesters, the authorities’ lack of transparency in their investigation of the matter has added to the tensions in the town of 21,000 people. Obama called for increased transparency, along with cooler heads from all parties, moving forward.
“I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened,” Obama said. “There are going to be different accounts of how this tragedy occurred. There are going to be differences in terms of what needs to happen going forward. That’s part of our democracy.
“But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family. We are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the law, a basic respect for public order, and the right to peaceful public protest, a reverence for the dignity of every single man, woman and child among us, and the need for accountability when it comes to our government. Now is the time for healing. Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson. Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done.”