Joshua Lott/Reuters

Holder expected in Ferguson after relatively calm night

Commanding officer said protest had a different dynamic, fewer people; before sunset, local leaders had urged calm

Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to arrive in Ferguson on Wednesday to meet with officials who have been conducting an investigation in the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American teen by a white police officer, an event that sparked more than a week of sometimes violent protests in the St. Louis suburb.

The scheduled visit, which comes after a relatively calm night in Ferguson, coincides with the expected start on Wednedsay of prosecutors presenting evidence in the Aug. 9 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown to a grand jury.

Although protestors filled the streets Tuesday evening, the scene was much more subdued than on any of the previous five nights, and the crowds were smaller. 

After sundown, peaceful but boisterous protesters marched along the street in a large square-shaped pattern chanting: "No justice, no peace," and a man knelt in the road with his hands over his head. Some of the marchers carried single stems of roses, while others assembled in a newly designated area set aside by police for protests.

There were no reports of clashes with police, who stood by with batons and gas masks. Police let only press and residents into the area. Many people were turned away, and only people who were willing to park and walk to the protests could join in if they weren't from the area.

But after midnight, tensions rose as officers tried to remove the relatively small number of protesters who had not left. Several people were seen in handcuffs before most of the remaining crowd headed home.

Al Jazeera field producer David Douglas, who reported seeing a number of uniformed St. Louis County police officers patrolling the streets of Ferguson Tuesday without wearing badges, saw many officers without nameplates on during the night's protest. He said the officers told him they had removed the identification to prevent being harassed. The department has yet to respond to a request for comment.

On Wednesday, at a press conference at 3:15 a.m. local time, Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson who is overseeing the law enforcement response, called the night's protests a turning point and said the protests, had a different dynamic because there had been a coordinated effort for peace. Earlier in the evening, local leaders had urged people to stay home.

Johnson said there were no shootings, no Molotov cocktails, and police used pepper spray sparingly. On previous nights, the police used tear gas and stun grenades to control protesters. 

Police seized a weapon from people in a vehicle who approaced police officers and threatened to shoot them, Johnson said.

Near midnight, when bottles were thrown, police went into the crowd and found suspects who where hiding behind media, he said.

Of the 46 arrests made, one was a person from out of state who was arrested for the third time, Johnson said. On Tuesday, authorities said more than 90 percent of the people arrested at the protests have been from out of town. 

Ferguson city leaders had twice urged people to stay home after dark Tuesday to "allow peace to settle in" and pledged to try to improve the police force after Brown's death.

In a public statement, the city said the mayor, the City Council and employees have been exploring ways to increase the number of African-American applicants to the law enforcement academy, develop incentive programs to encourage city residency for police officers and raise money for cameras that would be attached to patrol car dashboards and officers' vests.

Earlier Tuesday, a large crowd, some chanting "Hands up, don't shoot," gathered where St. Louis police officers shot and killed a knife-wielding man after a reported convenience store robbery. Like Brown, the suspect was black.

The shooting occured just a few miles from Ferguson.

It came after the arrest of 52 people in 24 hours, according to St. Louis County police. Of those arrested, the police said 27 percent were not from Missouri and 93 percent were not from Ferguson. 

At least 10 journalists from news outlets including Al Jazeera America, Washington Post and Getty Images have been detained in the last 11 days of protesting.

Despite the relative calm overnight, Holder is likely to encounter a still-tense Ferguson. 

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Tuesday that he would not seek the removal of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch who is overseeing the investigation into Brown's death. 

McCullouch's father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect.

Those deep conncections with local law enforcement have led some black leaders and others to question his ability to be impartial. 

Nixon said he would not ask McCulloch to leave the case, citing the "well-established process" by which prosecutors can recuse themselves from pending investigations to make way for a special prosecutor. 

The 12-member grand jury will meet in secret to hear evidence and determine if it is sufficient for charges to be filed. 

Wilson has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting, and the results of an investigation into the shooting could be turned over to a grand jury as early as Wednesday, though it isn't clear whether he will be charged.

Holder, in an op-ed published Tuesday night in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, called for an end to the violence, promised a full and fair investigation of Brown's death and said "police departments should reflect the diversity of the communites they serve."

Holder has led an unusually fast and aggressive Justice Department response to the Ferguson case, sending teams of prosecutors and dozens of FBI agents to investigate and arranging a federal autopsy on top of one by local authorities.

And even though there is skepticism in Ferguson that justice will be done, Holder's message is "powerful," said William Yeomans, a law school fellow at American University who worked in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division for more than two decades. "He's the embodiment of law enforcement, and the positive contribution he can make here is to assure the community that the federal government is taking very seriously the quest for justice in this incident."

Holder reinvigorated a civil rights force at Justice, Yeomans said, that had been scaled back and demoralized during President George W. Bush's administration.

But that still leaves tension in Ferguson, a predominantly black city with a largely white police force and it was a force that played out in the shooting nearby on Tuesday.

St. Louis Police Capt. Ed Kuntz said police responded shortly after noon after a report of a robbery at a convenience store. The suspect, a 23-year-old black man, refused police orders to drop the knife, Kuntz said. When the man allegedly raised the weapon and moved toward the officers, both opened fire, killing him, said Kuntz.

Police Chief Sam Dotson said the man was acting erratically and told officers to "shoot me now, kill me now." A man who said he witnessed the shooting, Robert Addison, 36, said the suspect cursed officers as he told them, "You'll have to kill me."

Both officers were placed on administrative duty, pending an investigation, but Kuntz said the shooting appeared to be justified.

About 100 people gathered at the site within an hour of the shooting. Some chanted "Hands up, don't shoot," which has become the mantra of protesters in Ferguson after witnesses described Brown as having his hands in the air when he was shot Aug. 9.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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