U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrived in Missouri on Wednesday for briefings on the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown amid an uneasy peace in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson that has been rocked by angry protests for 12 days.
St. Louis County prosecutors plan to begin presenting evidence Wednesday to a local grand jury as part of its investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a spokesman said Tuesday. VPC
Holder met with students at Florissant Valley Community College before meeting with community relations leaders.
"The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now," Holder said in his remarks. "The world is watching because the issues raised by the shooting of Michael Brown predate this incident. This is something that has a history to it and and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson.
"We have seen a great deal of progress over the years. But we also see problems and these problems stem from mistrust and mutual suspicion," he added.
Holder said he understood the mistrust students voiced about police. He recounted how New Jersey police searched his car after stopping him for speeding.
"I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me," he said.
Holder also told of being stopped in the Georgetown section of Washington because he and his cousin were running to make a movie. At the time, he was a federal prosecutor.
The attorney general told the audience they were "starting here a good dialogue. But the reailty is the dialogue is not enough. We need concrete action to change things in this country. That's what I have been trying to do. That's what the president has been trying to do."
Holder's visit came as a grand jury began hearing evidence to determine whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson should be charged in the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Brown.
About two dozen protesters Wednesday gathered outside the St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton, where the grand jury is expected to convene. About two dozen officers guarded the main entrance.
Before an investigative briefing at local FBI headquarters, Holder said the Justice Department had assembled "very experienced" prosecutors and agents to pursue the federal civil rights inquiry.
"Our investigation is different," Holder said in a meeting room surrounded by top local federal officials, including FBI Agent in Charge William Woods and U. S. Attorney Rich Callahan. "We're looking for possible violations of federal civil rights statutes."
He promised that the inquiry would be "thorough and fair" to determine "what happened on Aug.9."
Holder also said he hoped his visit "will have a calming influence on area."
Among the handful of students who met with Holder on Wednesday was Molyric Welch, 27, who said her brother died following a encounter with Ferguson police in 2011.
Welch said the 31-year-old man, Jason Moore, died of cardiac arrest after officers allegedly used a stun gun during a disturbance call.
"A lot has happened here," she said. "He (Holder) promised things were going to change."
Bri Ehsan, 25, a criminal justice student said the recent Ferguson shooting and its aftermath has been a "sad experience."
"We want to be part of change," Ehsan said. "This kind of thing should not be happening here."
On the grand jury front, Edward Magee, spokesman for St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch, said local investigators have interviewed Wilson, the 28-year-old officer at the center of the case, and he will be "offered the opportunity'' to testify before the panel if he chooses.
Magee said the case will be presented to a regular grand jury that already has been seated. He said the panel has a few weeks remaining in its current term. He did not know how long it would take to present the case.
"We will extend the term, if necessary,'' Magee said.
McCulloch said in an interview on KTRS radio that it could be the middle of October before his office has presented all of the evidence in the case to the grand jury.
In Ferguson, the streets of the embattled town of 22,000 people saw pockets of violence during demonstrations Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning but on the whole was more peaceful than in recent days, police said.
"Tonight, the elders in the community, volunteers, activists and the clergy came out in large numbers," Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said Wednesday during a press conference. "They walked and talked with people. They urged order," he said.
Days of protests in this largely African-American community have expressed anger over the shooting of the 18-year-old on Aug. 9 and the initial heavy show of force by police as demonstrators took to the streets.
In a brief meeting Wednesday with reporters outside Drake's restaurant, Johnson said the community was "turning against the criminals."
"We're rallying against the criminals," Johnson said.
Asked whether he had confidence in the local investigation led by the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney, Johnson said: "General Holder, by being here, is a guarantee on that."
Johnson, a ubiquitous figure since taking command of the streets last week, said local police and the community have to "grow" together.
"The community does not feel there is a connection. And that has to change."
It was not immediately clear what impact the start of the legal process would have on tension in the community, but Johnson said Tuesday's protests occurred in a less confrontational manner than had been seen in recent days.
"Tonight we saw a different dynamic. There were no Molotov cocktails, no shootings," he said. However, Johnson also said that 47 protesters were arrested and that threats were made to kill an officer.
Wednesday afternoon, police raided a church-affiliated school that has served as a "safe space" for protesters, an organizer said.
Officers entered the Storman Elementary School, next to the Greater St. Marks Missionary Baptist Church, and confiscated all food and medical supplies used to treat the wounded, said Montague Simmons of The Organization for Black Struggle.
"This space has been a haven for those who have been engaged in seeking justice for Mike Brown," she said in a statement. "This highlights the ongoing police repression and should show the world what's truly happening in Ferguson, Mo. Where here in Ferguson are our people suppose to feel safe?"
Another group member, John Chasnoff, 62, of University City, Mo., said police have intimidated organizers at the church since they began helping protesters about three or four days ago. He called the police visit a "pattern of escalation," adding that officers have been parked outside and have tried to intimidate people from entering.
Organizers weren't sure whether protesters coming to the church were from St. Louis County or Ferguson, and they were uncertain whether new supplies and food would be available Wednesday night.
Protests began peacefully Tuesday night as hundreds of protesters marched up and down West Florissant Avenue. The situation was calm until just before midnight when a glass bottle was thrown at police. Officers then ordered the protesters to disperse and rushed into the crowd in pursuit of a suspect.
Tensions mounted as tactical units and armored vehicles arrived on the scene. Police and members of the Missouri National Guard began arresting several individuals and maced some protesters after the order to disperse was given. They rushed into a McDonald's parking lot with guns trained on protesters, singling out suspects for arrest.
Police instructed protesters that they must keep the march moving and told those who did not wish to keep walking that they could rest in the media staging area.
"I'm not here for exercise," one protester yelled at police.
Another, Ned Alexander IV, 25, of St. Louis, was one of the protesters who refused to leave after multiple orders to do so by police. Tuesday was Alexander's fourth night of protesting and he said he plans to have many more nights of demonstrating.
"I'm going to sit out here all night, tomorrow night and the night after that," Alexander said.
Desmond Hardy, 32, of St. Louis, also refused to leave when police ordered him to do so.
"They treat us like animals," said Hardy, a supervisor at an event space. "Some of us — including myself — are willing to die ... He (Darren Wilson) needs to be charged with murder and there needs to be a fair trial."
An officer from neighboring St. Ann was suspended indefinitely Wednesday for pointing his semiautomatic assault rifle at protesters and then threatening to kill one after a verbal exchange Tuesday night, the St. Louis County Police Department announced.
A county sergeant ordered the unidentified officer to lower his weapon and then escorted him away.
A protester captured the confrontation on video and posted it to YouTube and other social media sites.
Earlier, local leaders issued a statement pleading for calm and promising changes in the police department.
"We plan to learn from this tragedy," city officials said in the statement. Officials are working to increase the number of black law enforcement applicants and raise funds for cameras for patrol car dashboards and officer vests, the statement said.
Brown's funeral will be Monday, family lawyer Benjamin Crump said.