U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to the St. Louis area where he met with community leaders, FBI agents and the parents of an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by police on Aug. 9, setting off more than a week of violent protests.
Holder’s appearance today tested the diplomatic and political skills of the nation’s first black attorney general as he seeks to restore order in Ferguson, Missouri, a community locked in battle with its police force since the death of 18- year-old Michael Brown. Clashes between mostly white police and mostly black protesters have featured Molotov cocktails, tear gas and armored vehicles in the suburb of 21,000.
“We’re looking for possible violations of federal civil- rights statutes,” Holder said at the local headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during a briefing on their inquiry into the shooting. He promised a “thorough and fair” probe.
Holder met with Brown’s parents at the U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown St. Louis. He also was to meet with the Missouri congressional delegation.
Before the meeting, Holder said he hoped his visit “will have a calming influence on the area.”
The arrival of the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, as a St. Louis County grand jury prepares to hear evidence on Brown’s killing underscored how Ferguson has become an international symbol of racial inequality and heavy-handed police tactics.
“The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now,” Holder told students and more than 50 community leaders at St. Louis Community College, according to a statement released by his office. “The issues raised by the shooting of Michael Brown predate this incident. This is something that has a history to it, and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson.”
Holder said he’d assigned the Justice Department’s “most experienced agents and prosecutors” to the case.
The attorney general said he understood how some minorities mistrust the police.
“I am the Attorney General of the United States, but I am also a black man,” he said. “I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding.” Holder said officers would “go through the trunk of my car, look under the seats and all this kind of stuff.”
“I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me.”
Holder’s visit followed a night of relative calm in Ferguson, the first day since Aug. 14 that police didn’t fire tear gas into crowds of protesters. Residents have taken to the streets daily calling for Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, to be arrested and charged with murder.
A grand jury that began considering evidence today won’t decided whether to indict Wilson until October “at the earliest,” said Edward Magee, a spokesman for the county prosecutor.
In an op-ed posted yesterday on the website of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Holder said investigators have interviewed hundreds of people and that federal medical examiners conducted an independent autopsy of Brown’s body.
Wilson, a 28-year-old white officer, shot Brown after stopping him in the street, police said. An autopsy conducted on his family’s behalf showed that he was shot at least six times. Police said Brown attacked Wilson, while some witnesses say Brown was raising his hands in surrender.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, urged a “vigorous prosecution” in a videotaped statement released yesterday. He asked Holder and the county prosecutor to use the attorney general’s trip to investigate Brown’s death “thoroughly, promptly and correctly.”
While multiple police agencies are coordinating efforts to restore order, residents in Ferguson and beyond said charges against the officer will be the key to peace on the streets.
Violence will erupt again if the investigations don’t lead to a prosecution and conviction, said Tef Poe, a 27-year-old local rapper and activist.
“If they don’t bring charges, the city’s going to explode,” he said. “I’ll probably have to move.”
Black residents have said the prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, whose police-officer father was killed in a shooting more than 50 years ago, wouldn’t conduct an impartial investigation and should recuse himself. McCulloch said Nixon should decide whether he should remain on the case.
“All I’m asking of the governor is to make a decision -- yes, you’re on the case, no, you’re not on the case,” McCulloch said today at news conference in Clayton, Missouri. “He’s dodging the question.”
Nixon said yesterday in a statement that he would not ask McCulloch to step aside from the case.
While President Barack Obama has offered assurances of a fair investigation and calls for an end to violence in statements from the White House, Holder will have the added impact of delivering his message at the epicenter of the crisis.
The visit is rare for an attorney general. Even Robert F. Kennedy, the activist attorney general of the 1960s civil rights era whose portrait hangs on the wall of Holder’s office, sent deputies to hotspots rather than traveling himself.
Holder brings law-enforcement credentials, including time as the top federal prosecutor in Washington during the early 1990s and a record of activism on civil rights extending as far back as his law school days, when he clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
In his current post, he has emphasized the Justice Department’s role in protecting the rights of racial and ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians, and in fixing what he considers related flaws in the justice system.
He sued North Carolina and Texas last year to overturn voter-identification laws that he says unfairly target minorities. Holder also has instructed federal prosecutors to avoid charging low-level drug offenders in a way that triggered what he considers “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences. He also has called for restoring voting rights to those who have served their time for felony convictions.
While those actions have won Holder praise among blacks, residents in Ferguson said they would continue taking to the streets until Wilson is arrested.
“The only thing that’s going to calm it down is if there are charges against this cop,” said Milton Mathis, a 44-year- old truck driver who lives in the neighboring city of Jennings. “The cop has to face charges.”
--With assistance from Elizabeth Campbell in Ferguson, Missouri.
To contact the reporters on this story: Toluse Olorunnipa in Ferguson, Missouri at email@example.com; Tim Jones in Ferguson, Missouri at firstname.lastname@example.org; Mike Dorning in Washington at email@example.com To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alan Goldstein at firstname.lastname@example.org; Steven Komarow at email@example.com Mark Schoifet, Pete Young
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