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Ferguson protests turn peaceful with new State Patrol in charge

After four days of violent protests, Ferguson was calm overnight as the State Patrol took over from the local police.
By Gabrielle Levy   |   Aug. 15, 2014 at 7:31 AM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- Protests in Ferguson took on a new tone Thursday evening as Missouri State Patrol Captain Ron Johnson took charge, marching with demonstrators and listening to their concerns.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon pulled the local police off the streets, intervening after four days of increasingly violent clashes between St. Louis County officers and residents following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

"This is currently my community and my home," Johnson said at the press conference. "We need to break the cycle of violence... and build trust."

The effect was immediate. Johnson, who is black and grew up in the area, walked among protesters during marches around 5 p.m. After dark, the crowded streets outside a burned-out QuikTrip, where many of the more violent standoffs had begun in recent days, took on an almost jubilant atmosphere, with music and free food.

A brief moment of tension threatened to break the new detente, when two St. Louis County Police squad cars showed up at the QuikTrip around 7:30 and were met with boos from the gathered crowd. But they left, rather than engaging protesters, and the moment passed without incident.

Noticeably absent were the officers dressed in riot gear, firing rubber bullets from high-powered rifles and lobbing canisters of tear gas at angry crowds.

"All they did was look at us and shoot tear gas," said Pedro Smith, 41, who said he's been out each night at the demonstrations. "This is totally different. Now we're being treated with respect."

The protests seemed to stem from simmering racial tensions in the St. Louis suburb, where more than two-thirds of residents are black, but the local police force is 94 percent white. Brown's death seemed to be indicative of a much larger issue, in which law enforcement nationwide disproportionately target young black men.

At a press conference from his vacation spot in Martha's Vineyard Thursday, President Obama called for "peace and calm."

"I know emotions are raw right now in Ferguson, and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened," Obama said. "But let's remember that we're all part of one American family."

Both he and Gov. Nixon called the police response unacceptable, but also laid some blame at the feet of those protesters who had turned violent, throwing bricks and bottles at officers.

Obama also said he ordered an independent investigation by the Department of Justice and the FBI to look into the shooting.

But the investigation will still be primarily handled by the St. Louis County Police, who have so far refused to name the officer who shot Brown, citing death threats. Nor have they revealed basic autopsy details like the number of times Brown was shot, which are generally made public within a few days.

Demonstrators chanted "What's his name? What's his name?" at Johnson and SLCP Chief Jon Belmar Thursday night, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit demanding the police release the shooting report under Missouri's Sunshine law, which requires government records be made public.

Sources told CNN the release may be imminent: Belmar said it could come "in the next day or two" while others suggested it would happen as early as Friday.

Follow @gabbilevy and @UPI on Twitter.
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