FERGUSON, Mo. — Hundreds of protesters gathered and marched near the flashpoint where riots and civil unrest have unfolded here in recent days, but no violent clashes were reported as of early Friday morning.
Citizens protesting the death of black Missouri teenager Michael Brown appeared to be getting along peacefully as they marched alongside state troopers, who took over operational control of the protest scenes Thursday.
Several marchers stopped to shake hands with police and troopers. Some people stopped to hug and chat with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol, who was born and grew up near this community and is now overseeing security.
The scene stood in stark contrast clashes earlier this week when officers wore riot gear.
Gov. Jay Nixon announced Thursday that the Missouri Highway Patrol would be taking control of security in Ferguson and that the unit in the embattled town would be overseen by Johnson.
"What's gone on here over the last few days is not what Missouri is about. It's not what Ferguson is about. This is a place where people work, go to school, raise their families, go to church," Nixon said. "But lately it's looked a little bit more like a war zone and that's unacceptable."
Johnson said people need to show respect to each other.
"It means a lot to me personally that we this break cycle of violence, heal tension and build trust," Johnson said.
He sidestepped questions about whether he thought St. Louis County and Ferguson police were at fault for the days of unrest. But he promised that residents would see a change in approach.
Johnson walked to the QuikTrip convenience store — ground zero of the protests — to meet with protesters. And he said he ordered police to remove gas masks from their kits before they headed out to the streets for a fifth night of protests.
"We are going to move forward from today and I would ask if we're going to critique, critique me from today," Johnson said.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson walked among demonstrators shaking hands, posing for selfies and cheerfully explaining to people that he understood their need to vent. He said his department brought about six of its 1,300 police officers to support the Missouri Highway Patrol.
"There is a sense of change," Dotson said. "This is what communities do. What I see are people
expressing their First Amendment rights. I only ask that everybody obey the law."
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said he supports freedom of assembly, but not disobedience for the law.
"I am for justice," Dooley said. "I am not for revenge."
Late Thursday, the National Action Network headed by civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, announced a Unity Rally for Justice for Michael Brown will be held in Ferguson at the Greater Grace Church at 3 p.m. Sunday. According to the organization's website, the Brown family will participate, as will Martin Luther King III.
Obama: 'Emotions are raw'
President Obama called for peace and calm in Ferguson, after meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder about repeated clashes between police and protesters after the shooting death of Brown, who was unarmed, on Saturday.
"I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson, and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened," Obama said from his vacation in Edgartown, Mass. "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."
Holder said after meeting with Obama that he was "deeply concerned" about the deployment of military equipment and vehicles in Ferguson. The Justice Department is investigating the death of Brown, which sparked the protests, for possible violations of state law or civil rights.
Holder said trust must be rebuilt between law enforcement and the community, and he was offering assistance through the COPS office and the Office of Justice Programs to help crowd control and maintain public safety
"At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message," Holder said. The technical assistance from Justice is aimed at maintaining public safety "without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force."
Darryl Parks, an attorney for Michael Brown's family, said Brown's mother met with two attorneys from the U.S. Department Justice's Civil Rights Division and two prosecutors from the office of the U.S. Attorney Eastern District of Missouri.
The 1:30 p.m. meeting lasted about an hour with the officials not going into details about their work but ensuring a fair and through investigation into Brown's death and possible civil rights violations.
"This family feels far better today about the investigation that is taking place," Parks said.
"It gives them real assurance that a proper investigation is taking place and that as the truth comes out the responsible person will be held accountable for what he did to Michael Brown," Parks said. "They have a lot more confidence and trust in what the feds are going to do compared to what the state was doing."
The federal officials didn't provide any specifics about their investigative plans or what they have already learned. The DOJ has already talked to some witnesses but did note give Lesley McSpadden, Brown's mother, a timeline for when they might conclude.
Parks said Brown's family will likely meet with the officials again as the investigation continues.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she thought the police response had become part of the problem. "The police response needs to be demilitarized."
Investigation into Brown
KSDK-TV reported that the FBI will take over a large part of the investigation. The St. Louis County Police Department has been in charge of the investigation into the unarmed black teenager's death and with securing the streets of the city during the confrontations between protesters and law enforcement.
It was not immediately clear how removing the county police force would affect the Ferguson Police Department, which is a separate law enforcement entity. It was a Ferguson police officer who was involved in the fatal shooting of Brown that has angered the largely African-American community of around 20,000 people.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson echoed the view that the police would change how they interact with protesters.
"We are going to try to facilitate the protests tonight and we hope the protesters will recognize that we are trying to help everybody bring the tension down," he said at a news conference Thursday.
"It's a powder keg, and we all recognize that," he said. "What's happening now is not what anyone of us want... We need to get everyone to calm down."
But he also said that the police was prepared to respond forcefully to violence. "We have to respond to deadly force," he said. "We certainly don't want to have any violence on our part."
At a meeting of St. Louis area clergy on Thursday, residents and pastors complained that the environment has become similar to a war zone.
Resident: 'Every night we're tormented'
"We should not be looking like Iraq, Beirut, Israel, the Gaza Strip," said Rev. Robert Scott of the Central Baptist Church in St. Louis.
Residents said the city in recent days had been marked by burning trash cans and police officers blocking mothers from getting out of their neighborhoods so they can buy formula.
Sierra Smith, who lives in apartment complex that has been at the center of the protests, complained to the governor that her neighborhood has been under police siege since Brown's death.
"Every night we're tormented," she said. "The police have no respect at all for the community."
The St. Louis County police, outfitted with riot gear and heavy armaments, have been the most visible force in the clashes with demonstrators. That effort has been marked by the use of tear gas and stun grenades.
Sixteen people were arrested and two police officers were injured during the latest round of unrest. One of the officers suffered an ankle injury after being hit by a brick. The other officer's injury is unclear, according to KSDK.
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who has been posting Vine videos and tweeting about the protests, was released Thursday morning after being detained overnight on accusations of unlawful assembly.
The evening clashes were marked by the whir of police helicopters and the bang of flash grenades, along with the smell of tear gas that hung in the air for hours.
As the unrest gripped the community, Ferguson schools pushed back the first day of classes from Thursday to Monday.
Protesters have demanded that police release the name of the officer involved.
After initially promising to make the name public, police backed off because of what they said were threats from social media.
In the latest twist in the saga, what they said was the name of the officer. Reporters who followed up on the tip said the tip was false. Later, the Anonymous account on Twitter was suspended.
Ferguson Police Chief Jackson tried on Wednesday to address racial disparity in the police department in this St. Louis suburb where two-thirds of the population of 20,000 are African American and account for nine out of 10 stops by police. The 53-member police force includes three African Americans.
"Race relations is a top priority right now," Jackson said. "I've been trying to increase the diversity of the department since I got here."
On Wednesday evening, as three vehicles approached a QuikTrip store that was burned on Sunday night, officers in bulletproof vests drew and pointed rifles at the cars.
The sound of apparent gunshots was heard nearby and officers began to pull back from protesters who approached them with their hands raised, mimicking what witnesses said Brown was doing when he was fatally shot in the head and chest.
Some in the crowd tossed gasoline bombs and other objects at police, the Associated Press reported.
Among those detained were two national reporters who were at a McDonald's restaurant where members of the media were charging cellphones and writing.
Reporters Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post said on Twitter that officers told them to stop recording the unrest, then took them into custody.
Contributing: Associated Press
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