Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Obama urges Ferguson protesters to unite under common values

Ten arrested overnight as residents in Missouri town protest for a fourth night the police shooting of Michael Brown

Following a fourth night of racially charged demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, during which police fired tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse crowds of protesters, President Obama urged Americans to unite under the United States’ common values.

“Now’s the time for healing, now’s the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” Obama said Thursday afternoon during a televised appearance in Martha's Vineyard.

He added that “we all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard, particularly those in a position of authority.”

Police in Ferguson fired tear gas, stun grenades and smoke bombs to disperse several hundred protesters late Wednesday as they railed against the death of an unarmed black teenager who was shot by police.

Protesters have gathered every night since Saturday when 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by police in the mostly black suburb of St. Louis. Witnesses said Brown had his hands raised in the air at the time of the shooting, while police said there was a struggle over a gun in the police car.

At least 10 protesters were arrested overnight, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. At least 50 have been arrested since Saturday. 

“I’ve had enough of being pushed around because of the color of my skin. I’m sick of this police brutality,” one protester, who only gave his first name, Terrell, said. “I’m going to keep coming back here night after night until we get justice.”

Obama said Thursday that the Department of Justice was consulting with local authorities in Ferguson “to maintain public safety without restricting peaceful protests” or engaging in “unnecessary escalation.”

He said that protesters had no excuse for using violence against police or looting, and that police also had no excuse for throwing protesters in jail.

The president also criticized police for their treatment of two journalists who were detained by police on Wednesday. Police “should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs,” Obama said.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon also spoke Thursday afternoon, stressing the importance of safety as protesters expressed their anger and frustration.

"We've got to use this energy and not use it as an excuse to spin off, but use it to push forward," he said.

"If news media wants to cover stuff, and take pictures of stuff, they ought to do it. We live in a free country," he added.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, who has been the public face of the city torn by Brown's death, told reporters Wednesday that the St. Louis County investigation of Brown's shooting could take weeks to complete.

In the meantime, he said, his department welcomes Justice Department training on race relations in the suburb, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black while all but three of the police force's 53 officers are white.

Residents in the low-income, mostly black neighborhood where Brown was killed say they are often harassed by police. Ferguson has seen a sharp demographic shift in recent decades, going from virtually all white to mostly black. 

"Unfortunately, an undertow [of racial unrest] has bubbled to the surface," said Jackson. "Race relations is the top priority right now."

While Jackson said he wanted to mend fences with the community, protesters were on the streets of Ferguson again on Wednesday, facing heavily armed police who at one time fired weapons at them from an armored truck.

'Hands up, don't shoot'

The situation became tenser after nightfall Wednesday, with police ordering people to go home and then using smoke bombs and later tear gas after some people threw Molotov cocktails and other things at them. Most of the crowd then dispersed.

Multiple journalists reporting at the scene have reportedly faced pressure from Ferguson police. On Wednesday evening, reporters Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan J. Reilly of The Huffington Post wrote on Twitter that they had been assaulted and detained by police, who at the time were attempting to "kick everyone out" of McDonald's.

"Detained, booked, given answers to no questions. Then just let out," Lowery tweeted. 

The Washington Post reported that Lowery said he was slammed against a soda machine and plastic cuffs were put on his wrists. Reilly told MSNBC that an officer slammed his head against the glass "purposefully" on the way out of the restaurant "and then sarcastically apologized for it." The reporters were subsequently released without any charges.

Martin D. Baron, The Washington Post's executive editor, issued a statement saying "there was absolutely no justification" for Lowery's arrest and said the organization was appalled by the officers' conduct.

Ryan Grim, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Huffington Post, said in a statement that "compared to some others who have come into contact with the police department, they came out relatively unscathed, but that in no way excuses the false arrest or the militant aggression toward these journalists."

Al Jazeera journalists covering the protests in Ferguson on Wednesday night were also tear gassed and shot at with rubber bullets by police.

"Al Jazeera America is stunned by this egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story," said Kate O'Brian, president of Al Jazeera America.

In response to questions at a news conference on Thursday about why reporters were harassed, Ferguson police chief Jackson said, "I don't know."

When an Al Jazeera reporter piped in about being the target of police tear gas, Jackson said, “The media is not a target.”

A wound 'torn open afresh'

On Tuesday, Obama called Brown’s death a tragedy and urged people to come up with a thoughtful response, but the ongoing tensions were underscored by the new shooting incident.

Gov. Nixon told a packed church in North St. Louis County on Tuesday evening the Ferguson community was "reeling from what feels like an old wound that has been torn open afresh."

Activists have been demanding that authorities make public the name of the officer involved in the Brown shooting. The police had said they would release the officer's name on Tuesday but changed the plan, citing fears of retaliation, according to media reports.

In a tweet, the online hacker group Anonymous released the name of the officer they say shot Brown. St. Louis County police, however, said that information was false. Anonymous also posted the home address and social security number of St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar.  

Twitter later suspended the Anonymous account responsible for posting the alleged officer's name, STL Today reported. 

The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into the racially charged case, and St. Louis County is also investigating.

A witness to the shooting interviewed on local media said that Brown had been putting his hands up to surrender when he was killed.

"There were many, many witnesses who have talked to family members and they paint a very different picture than police witnesses," said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Brown family. Crump also represented the family of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012.

The "hands up" gesture has been frequently seen at protests over the shooting. More than 100 protesters in front of the St. Louis County Courthouse in nearby Clayton on Tuesday morning chanted "hands up, don't shoot."

Demonstrations on Sunday night turned violent, with looting and property damage. Violence broke out again on Monday night as police officers in riot gear, armed with rifles and accompanied by dogs, attempted to secure the area.

Al Jazeera and wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter