Governor Jay Nixon announced today that the Missouri Highway Patrol will be taking over control of policing in the town of Ferguson from St. Louis County police. Nixon also promised to "step back a little bit," "allowing more movement," and he would "bring in a different tone."
The governor said that a "multidisciplinary team" will continue to be on the ground — but did not specify whether that would include the SWAT teams that have been patrolling Ferguson's protests over the last few days.
He also declined to comment on whether mistakes were made, saying "I'm not looking backwards."
"But there will be resources on the ground if things get difficult," he said.
The strategic shift followed widespread condemnation of what many residents and observers described as a police-made escalation in the town on Thursday.
Capt. Ronald Johnson of Highway Patrol, who grew up in the area, promised a different approach.
"If you are gonna critique, critique me from today," he later told reporters. "Before I came here today I had all my troopers take their tear gas masks off of their belt."
Earlier today when meeting with members of the suburban Ferguson community that's still trying to make sense of days of intense protests that have turned the town into a flashpoint for years of anger and racial segregation, Nixon promised a "a solution that would bring justice and peace" — before heading out for a photo op by shooting victim Michael Brown's makeshift memorial.
Speaking to local residents gathered at a church on Thursday morning, Nixon called the events of the week following the shooting death of Brown, an unarmed teen, by police "horrific," and promised "operational shifts that are going to be necessary to make sure that this matter is brought to a peaceful resolution."
"Sometimes in the complicated nature of facts and in the disparate way of opinions, folks sometimes sway away," he said, but conceded, "there is a certain level of emotion that must be expressed."
"Because we will not get the feeling that we need if the only response from the public is, 'just be quiet,'" he said, adding that people had a "right to speak in a peaceful manner, even if emotion is involved."
However, St. Louis Pastor Freddy J. Clark told the governor that the community wanted the matter out of the hands of the state and turned over to "higher authorities."
"We don't trust this process anymore," he said, and as met by a standing ovation. "I hope people are not in a hurry to put a lid on this… This has been a long time coming."
"At the end of all this, the conversation that we should have been having years ago will finally take place," he added.
Flanked by her two small children, Sierra Smith, a local resident, angrily told the governor that, "the police have no respect, at all, for the community."
"We can't bring Michael back, we know that, all we ask for is for peaceful protest, all we ask for is to stop being treated like outsiders, because we live in this community," she said, adding that she and many others haven't even been able to get into their apartment complexes because of police presence. "Something needs to change, people do have the right to protest. What we are asking is for the violence to stop, and that's coming from the police officers."
Protests and clashes continued for the fourth night in a row in Ferguson overnight as community anger at the police shooting death of Brown escalated, fueled by people's indignation at police response to the protests.
Officers — many sent in from towns across the state — closed in on a peaceful march on Ferguson's main road on Wednesday afternoon after some demonstrators had sat down in the middle of the street and refused to leave. Later in the evening, police locked all entrances and exits to a residential area not far from where Brown was killed, firing tear gas at protesters on foot and in cars, as some demonstrators reportedly responded with Molotov cocktails.
Several people — including some reporters and community leaders — were arrested.
As the eyes of the country turned to the violence in this otherwise tranquil suburb of St. Louis, people in the streets continue to demand answers for the death of Brown — who was shot and killed this weekend by a still unnamed police officer, following an altercation of which the details are still being disputed — and expressed horror at the lack of official response to their treatment by police.
The St. Louis police department took over control of the area from the Ferguson police department — but Nixon was expected to relieve them of that responsibility after widespread criticism of their response.
But as police officers moved in with SWAT teams and armored vehicles once again, Ferguson residents said they had no desire for patience, and that the militarization of their neighborhood over the last few days would only prompt them to hit the streets again.
While the protests continued, some in Ferguson said they were trying to get back to normal. With businesses mostly closed and boarded up, many took a hit in the last days.
"We just need our peace," said Paul Simon, 29, who owns a pet store on Florissant Road, one of the streets that became stage to the riots of the last few days. Simon, like many in the area, kept his store closed following the looting — but came in again to check on his animals. "My heart goes out to all the other businesses. It's like a small recession for them. This week was a ghost town over here."
He said he condemns the destruction but understands people's anger.
"This community is still looking for answers. It was a nice little candle vigil, and then it just turned into something different," he said, adding that many of those doing the looting were not from the neighborhood. "They were people out there to take advantage of the situation."
Why are the Michael Brown protests sticking?
As a man standing by the burnt out shell of a QuikTrip gas station's store put it early on Wednesday, this was no longer "only about Mike Brown."
"This is years and years in the making, it was going to happen," said Andrew Rucker, 30, who lives in the area and has been coming out to the destroyed gas station every day this week. "This is bigger than Mike Brown, this is years of saying that something is wrong. This is what happens when people are fed up. The violence is misguided, but this is what happens. And it's sadder that we had to lose a life. "
Rucker, who was posing for pictures with a friend by the burned out station, spoke about a childhood friend of his that was also killed by police, and recounted some of his own contentious exchanges with officers.
He and many others put the blame on Ferguson's extreme racial segregation — and on the lack of black police officers and public officials in a largely black neighborhood. Three of Ferguson's 53 police officers are black, according to Mother Jones.
"St. Louis is a racially charged powder keg. This is the result of not getting a fair shot, of anger, and of racism. It's so racist here, this is the most segregated city ever," he added, drawing an imaginary divide line in the air, Delmar Avenue, then pointing to those around. "This side, it's the have-nots."
The riots, he said, were just a matter of time.
The QuikTrip gas station on Florissant Road has become a pilgrimage site of sort, where people come to pose for photos, their hands raised up, in front of the gutted shell of the station. Groups of men gather by the gas pumps to rehash the developments of the last few days, and a man with a small child preaches passionately — to nobody in particular, and anyone that will listen — about the centuries of abuse endured by African-Americans.
Some spoke about turning the burnt out station into the set of a music video, and others showed up looking for a community-driven cleanup effort that had just moved a few blocks away. Meanwhile, nearby counselors offered support for traumatized residents.
"This is our Ground Zero," Rucker said.
Just minutes away from the station, on Canfield Drive, in the residential complex where Brown was killed, makeshift memorials became the gathering point for still stunned neighbors — some drinking beers next to teddy bears and signs demanding justice for Mike, and others watching their children play next to a handwritten sign that says "beware killer cop on the loose."
The conversation moves from boys who swear they know the officer that killed Brown, to those asking "why didn't they just Taser him if he was so violent?" Many still can't believe the world's sudden attention to this quiet residential road, while others are growing angrier as they recount what they heard of the dynamics of the incident for the hundredth time.
"He had his hands up," 25-year-old Tommy Keely, whose cousin was with Brown at the time of his killing, says over and over. "They are saying we are hooligans, the people here are tripping. We're not doing anything, we're just protecting our rights."
Kelly and other young men from nearby homes have been coming out to the memorial every day. "We aren't going nowhere," he adds. "If he beats his case, there are gonna be more and more riots," he promises, referring to the officer. "If there were no riots, they would have swept it under the rug."
"This isn't Trayvon Martin shit. Florida let that one slide," Rico Smove, 35, adds. "But St. Louis, we are not letting them off this one."