Jeff Roberson/AP Photo

Tensions run high at Ferguson City Council

First meeting after shooting death of Michael Brown draws angry crowd; many call for ouster of mayor, police chief

City leaders in Ferguson confronted demands for reform from an angry crowd on Tuesday night at their first public meeting since the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer.

The shooting, which exposed an undercurrent of racial unrest in Ferguson and other nearby suburbs in mostly black communities of Missouri’s north St. Louis County, triggered nightly, sometimes violent protests. Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and sent in National Guard troops to try to quell the unrest as the world watched how the still uneasy race relations in the United States played out against the use of militarized police to stop demonstrations.

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People had to pass through metal detectors and security guards to attend the council meeting, held at an area church. Some wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Hands up, don't shoot," a phrase that has become a national rallying cry for activists protesting the death of 18-year-old Brown and other incidents of what they say are police abuse. Several witnesses of the shooting say Brown had raised his hands when the police officer, Darren Wilson, shot him.

Within minutes of the start of Tuesday night's meeting, as council leaders attempted to discuss routine city business, one man shouted, "What about Mike Brown?" Later others stood up and chanted, "Shut it down!" while raising their hands in the air. 

The first speaker to take the microphone during the public comment period said he was there for the mayor's job. It was a theme echoed throughout the meeting, as speaker after speaker expressed doubt about the city's planned reforms — and anger at their government officials.

Wild applause rang out from the crowd as people addressing the council called on Mayor James Knowles III to step down and complained of ineffective leadership, police harassment and racial profiling, among other grievances. Several also said that Tom Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, must be fired. Many warned that civil unrest will continue and could expand if Wilson is not arrested.

"You've lost your authority to govern this community," said St. Louis activist John Chasnoff. "You're going to have to step aside peacefully if this community is going to heal."

In one particularly heated exchange, several people rushed toward the stage after the council refused to answer a question about whether Wilson remained on the city payroll. Security workers held the angry crowd back, and church leaders urged calm and helped persuade the people to return to their seats.

"We are not going back to business as usual. We are holding you accountable," 29-year-old Ashley Yates told the council.

Three hours later, the meeting concluded, with prospective speakers still lined up at a pair of microphones.

Earlier this week the city council announced a set of proposals, including reducing the revenue from court fines used for general city operations and reforming court procedures. Critics say reliance on court revenue and traffic fines to fund city services more heavily penalizes low-income defendants who can't afford private attorneys and who are often jailed for not promptly paying those fines.

The city also plans to establish a citizens' review board to help guide the police department.

Councilman Mark Byrne said before the meeting that the goal of the proposed changes "is to improve trust within the community and increase transparency."

Ferguson, a city of 21,000, is about 70 percent black. Its 53-member police department has just three black officers. The mayor and five of the six city council members are white.

Police have said the shooting of Brown followed a scuffle after Wilson told Brown and a friend to move out of the street and onto a sidewalk. Autopsies concluded Brown was shot at least six times.

Earlier on Tuesday, Brown's parents joined about 20 supporters and activists at a news conference outside police headquarters to reiterate calls for Wilson's immediate arrest.

Also on Tuesday, a St. Louis County family court judge denied The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's request for any juvenile records Brown might have had. It is not known if Brown had such a record, and a juvenile court system lawyer said at a hearing last week that Brown was never convicted of a felony such as murder or burglary.

The U.S. Justice Department announced last week that it was launching a broad investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, looking for patterns of discrimination. That inquiry is separate from the one into Brown's death, which a local grand jury is also investigating.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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