FERGUSON, Mo. — Federal and state officials unveiled a sweeping response Thursday to violent clashes between police and protesters over the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, with Missouri taking over security operations from local police and authorities agreeing to accept Justice Department help in handling protests.
Speaking from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation, President Barack Obama called for national unity following the police shooting Saturday of Michael Brown, 18. "Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson," Obama said. "Let's remember that we're all part of one American family."
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. then announced a series of steps his department is taking, including a meeting held Thursday with civic leaders to calm tensions and an escalating civil rights investigation in which federal investigators have already interviewed witnesses to the shooting.
In unusually blunt remarks, Holder said he was "deeply concerned" about "the deployment of military equipment and vehicles" on Ferguson's streets and that Missouri officials have accepted federal assistance "to conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force."
Even as dozens of protesters continued their campaign near the shooting scene for a fifth day Thursday, state officials followed the federal lead. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would take over security operations in Ferguson, led by Capt. Ronald Johnson, an African-American man who grew up in the area. "We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we're in this together," Johnson said.
As a result, the heavy riot armor, the SWAT trucks with sniper posts and the gas masks were gone from the streets of Ferguson Thursday night, and Johnson marched with the crowd, eliciting cheers from the protesters. Johnson vowed to not blockade the streets, to set up a media staging center and to ensure that residents' rights to assemble and protest were not infringed upon.
"I'm not afraid to be in this crowd," Johnson declared to reporters.
Obama's remarks were the most visible step in a rapid coalescence among political and community leaders to tamp down the violence, as images of riot police, tear gas and government intervention provoked a national debate about race and justice that recalled civil rights battles of a half-century ago.
In a sudden burst of interest fueled by photos and video of heavily armed police that swirled on social media, politicians from both sides of the aisle rushed on Thursday — five days after the shooting — to condemn the tactics of the nearly all-white police force in the predominantly African-American town.
The reactions were remarkably similar across the political spectrum. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., for example, called for authorities to "demilitarize this situation," while Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a likely Republican presidential candidate, condemned "the militarization of our law enforcement" in a Time magazine essay.
But on the ground in Ferguson, the support from politicians at all levels was met with skepticism, and it was unclear how much effect it would have.
Eddie Hasan, a St. Louis resident who helped organize a forum Thursday night at a local Baptist church for young people to voice their concerns, called on elected officials to play a greater role in calming tensions. "This forum, this chance for the youth to speak out absolutely should have happened sooner," he said. "Hopefully it helps us get some resolution to the issue."
Underlying the dispute was the continuing lack of clarity about just what happened Saturday night in Ferguson.
According to a friend who says he witnessed the incident, Brown was walking down a Ferguson street when a police officer in a car ordered him to get on the sidewalk. Brown had his hands in the air to show he was unarmed when the officer shot him multiple times, the friend said.
The police version is that Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to grab his gun. Ferguson police Chief Thomas Jackson said during a news conference on Wednesday that the officer was struck in the face during the encounter. The side of the officer's face was "swollen," Jackson said, and he was treated at an area hospital.
The Justice Department's civil rights division, along with the U.S. Attorney's Office in St. Louis and the local FBI field office, are investigating the shooting to determine if anyone's civil rights were violated. The federal inquiry is running parallel to the state investigation.
Holder, who met with Obama on Thursday to discuss the case, said: "Our review will take time to conduct, but it will be thorough and fair."
Another key source of frustration for residents is that police, after initially promising to identify the officer involved in the shooting, have backtracked because of what they say are threats to his safety.
The lack of specifics about the shooting has many protesters vowing to continue their campaign. Dozens of people did so on Thursday near the shooting scene and outside the police station.
Many residents said that they do not care if elected officials ever show up. "I don't want to see any governors, or any mayors, or even any more cameras," said Derrick Beavers, 32, a protester who said he knew Brown personally. "I want justice."