Governor Puts Highway Patrol in Charge of Security in Ferguson

          FERGUSON, Mo. (CN) – After nights of violent protests in Ferguson, Mo., Gov. Jay Nixon said Thursday that the Missouri Highway Patrol will take control of security around the protests. Nixon said that Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, an African-American who grew up in the Ferguson area, will direct the security efforts.
     St. Louis County police had been in charge, but criticism of the department’s handling of the protests grew after repeated nighttime violence this week.
     Critics claimed the police’s over-militarization only increased tensions and complained about arrests made during the protest, which included a city alderman and two journalists.
     “To change the course, we’re going to all need to join hands,” Nixon said.
     Capt. Johnson added: “I understand the anger and fear that the citizens of Ferguson are feeling. And our officers will respect that.”
     Only three of Ferguson’s 53 police officers are black, though 65 percent of the city is African-American.
     St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley stressed cooperation on Thursday.
     “The community and law enforcement must come together as a unit,” Dooley said. “Neither can get there by themselves.”
     Nixon said the Missouri Highway Patrol will attempt to maintain peace, while stepping back a little and letting the energy of the protestors be felt.
     In making the change, Nixon refused to criticize the work of St. Louis County police in its handling of the situation.
     Johnson said hopes to keep West Florissant road open today. West Florissant, a major road in Ferguson where the protests have occurred, has been closed in sections since the protests began.
     “We’re going to go back and assess today. … We talk about boots on the ground, my boots will be on the ground and I plan on talking to the people at QuikTrip tonight,” Johnson said.
     Earlier in the day, politicians weighed in on the Ferguson situation.
     Speaking at a Ferguson church, Nixon empathized with protestors.
     “We need safety, but we also need to allow people to express their feelings,” Nixon said. “We will not get the healing that we all need if the only response from the public is, ‘Ya’ll just be quiet.’ There is a certain level of emotion that needs to be expressed in order for us to reach a higher plane.”
     Nixon added, “It doesn’t matter how respectful it is, just that it is safe.”
     U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill told reporters that she believes the police response has become part of the problem.
     “We need to demilitarize this situation – this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution,” McCaskill said in a statement.
     “I obviously respect law enforcement’s work to provide public safety, but my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right. Today is going to be a new start; we can and need to do better.”
     President Barack Obama asked for healing and peace and called all involved to hold themselves to a higher standard.
     “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism and looting,” Obama said. “This also is not an excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.
     “And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their job and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.
     “Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those in positions of authority.”
     Here is Courthouse News’ report on the situation in Ferguson as it stood early Thursday morning.
     Protests turned violent in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday night as 10 people were arrested, including an alderman and two journalists, and police shot tear gas and peppered the crowd with rubber bullets. Tempers boiled over when a protestor threw a bottle at police shortly before 9 p.m.
     Police responded by setting off smoke bombs, which moved the crowd back a couple of blocks. Then police announced that it was no longer a peaceful protest and ordered the crowd to leave.
     The protestors refused.
     One man shouted, “If you want us, come get us right now!”
     Then tear gas filled the air and police showered the crowd with rubber bullets.
     “We aren’t doing anything but putting up our signs protesting and they are shooting their gas telling us get back for no reason,” said a man who identified himself as Dwayne. “It’s got to stop.”
     The show of power scattered the crowd, but didn’t shake their resolve.
     “I was running, but I was ready to unload myself, I’ll be honest,” a man named Jackson told Courthouse News. “I’m not going to stand for it.”
     The tear gas was fired in front of the now famous QuikTrip gas station, which was looted and burned during riots on Sunday. From there, police systematically moved north up West Florissant, a major road in Ferguson.
     Police fired tear into the crowd and into neighboring residential areas.
     Enough tear gas was shot that a huge plume of tear gas floated north up West Florissant, burning reporters’ and protestors’ eyes and lungs.
     “I was standing next to a reporter with Al-Jazeera and there were four or five people there,” a man named Jason told Courthouse News. “All of a sudden the lady from Al-Jazeera got struck in the leg with a rubber bullet. She started screaming, ‘I’m with the news!’ Then they shot a tear gas canister at us.”
     When the dust settled, 10 people were arrested, including St. Louis Alderman Antonio French and reporters from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.
     No details about French’s arrest have been released.
     The Washington Post reporter, Wesley Lowery, later tweeted that he and the Huffington Post reporter had been working at a nearby McDonald’s earlier in the day, when police came to clear it out.
     “Officers decided we weren’t leaving McDonald’s quickly enough, shouldn’t have been taping them,” he tweeted.
     “Officers slammed me into a fountain soda machine because I was confused about which door they were asking me to walk out of,” he wrote.
     Lowery says he was detained, booked and released.
     Media relations have become strained. Earlier this week, police declared Ferguson a no-fly zone for news helicopters and on Wednesday police ordered media to turn off their cameras. The media refused to comply.
     St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters Wednesday that no protestors had been injured and one officer twisted an ankle.
     The protestors have received reinforcements from around the country. On Tuesday, Black Panther members were spotted in the crowd. On Wednesday, members of the Revolution Club of Chicago took turns inciting the protestors with messages through a megaphone.
     “This system is totally illegitimate and we are here to stand with the people who are rising up in the face of massive police terror,” Revolution Club member Gregory Koger told Courthouse News. “This community is being terrorized by the police. These young men can’t even walk down the street without being terrorized by the police.”
     Tension was noticeably higher Wednesday than it had been the previous two nights.
     Ferguson resident Demetrious Smith was frustrated because his apartment was behind the police line. He said he got permission from one officer to go across after walking to the store, but when he returned another officer wouldn’t let him through.
     “If I go the right way, it’s going to take five minutes,” Smith told Courthouse News. “If I go down the other way, it is an hour and 30 minute walk.”
     The Rev. Darrell Burgess lamented the damage the looting has done to Ferguson. Burgess, a 63-year-old amputee, lives behind the QuikTrip that was burned. He said the loss of the gas station has made it tougher on him to buy bread and milk.
     “It makes it harder, because I have to walk on eight toes,” Burgess told Courthouse News.
     A couple of hours before the protests turned violent, the crowd was entertained by the Diamond Hearts street dance team. Diamond Hearts is composed of young girls from low-income households and its goal is to promote positivity throughout the community.
     The team did a special routine to honor Michael Brown’s memory.
     “This is so important for us to be out here, because this is what we’ve been learning and training for,” Diamond Hearts leader Martha Turner told Courthouse News. “We never thought anything would happen like this. We’ve been trying to stop the violence, put down the guns, whatever we can to bring unity into our community.”
     Ferguson police shot and killed the unarmed Brown on Saturday, sparking the protests. Residents want the officer identified, indicted and charged with murder.
     Earlier Wednesday, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch addressed the status of the investigation into Brown’s death.
     “We will conduct a full, fair and complete investigation on this,” McCulloch told reporters. “Nothing will remain untouched.”
     McCulloch assured transparency, but declined to give a timetable for a resolution.
     The protestors said they won’t go anywhere until they get what they want.
     “We are going to be out here every day until that man (the officer) is convicted,” Dwayne told Courthouse News. “If he beats the case, its only going to get worse … we’re going to turn the whole city up.”
     (CNS reporter Joe Harris (@Joeharris_stl) will be tweeting updates from Ferguson as they occur.)

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