FERGUSON, Missouri – A small group of dedicated protesters continued to march and chant past midnight Thursday morning. But the knots of young men and teens who in previous nights had provoked clashes with police were mostly absent.
“Tonight was a very good night in Ferguson,” Capt. Ron Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said in a police press conference held around 1:30 a.m. CST on Thursday. “I am going to enjoy the peace we had today and not focus on what ifs,” he added.
The drop-off in arrests was dramatic – from 47 on Tuesday to just six on Wednesday. “Police fired not a single bullet,” said Johnson. There were also, according to authorities, no fires, shootings, tear gas, mace or Molotov cocktails.
With few arrests and little violence, W. Florissant Avenue had its most peaceful night since late last week—a sign, perhaps, that the atmosphere of anguish and fury that has dominated this St. Louis suburb since the death of Michael Brown on August 9 could be receding.
Ominous clouds gathered around 8 p.m., and there were bursts of thunder and lightning. Soon after, heavy rain began to fall, sending protesters and media scurrying for cover, and appearing to reduce tensions.
Still, Alderman Antonio French said a verbal altercation broke out, with one man being led away by police, after the appearance of a white woman carrying a sign supporting Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed the unarmed teen.
Minutes later, protesters linked arms around the woman to prevent people from rushing her, in an effort to de-escalate the conflict. The woman was eventually hauled into a St. Louis County police vehicle. Police later told msnbc she was released after being briefly detained.
Some protesters expressed anger over the woman’s appearance. “She’s just stirring up drama,” said one.
Earlier, police began telling reporters to enter the media staging area or else keep walking – the crowd-control strategy they’ve used lately, with relative success.
The day’s events had offered some hope that the sporadic violence and chaos in the streets since Brown’s death is giving way to a focus on the slow but sure process of justice and healing.
That process moved forward with the visit to Ferguson Wednesday of Attorney General Eric Holder, who met with community leaders and Brown’s family.
“I just had the opportunity to sit down with some wonderful young people and to hear them talk about the mistrust they have at a young age. These are young people and already they are concerned about potential interactions they might have with the police,” Holder said during a meeting at St. Louis Community College, according to excerpts released by the Justice Department.
“I understand that mistrust. I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man,” Holder continued. “I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding … I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me.”
Holder also publicly lauded Capt. Johnson for his efforts to maintain security in the area since last week. “You are the man,” Holder told Johnson as they met at Drake’s Place restaurant in Ferguson, according to the pool report of the meeting. He then met with Brown’s family behind closed doors for 20 minutes. Brown’s parents reportedly asked about the investigative process and were promised a “fair and independent” inquiry by the attorney general.
Johnson later told reporters that community policing needs to improve, because residents don’t feel connected to their local law enforcement officials.
“I think restraint is important. If we ask public to have restraint with us, we have to have same,” Johnson said.
Later, Holder got a briefing from federal prosecutors on their ongoing probe into the August 9 shooting of the unarmed teen.
Holder said he’s confident the investigation will determine whether the shooting violated federal civil rights laws, and added that his visit was intended to have a “calming effect” in Ferguson. He returned to Washington late on Wednesday night.
During his press conference after 1 a.m. on Thursday morning, Johnson said he believed Holder’s visit did help ease tensions in the community. “I believe it let the community know their voices have been heard by the greatest, the top law enforcement officer in the land.” said Johnson.
Earlier this week, Holder asked Ferguson for “cooperation and patience” as the investigation proceeds.
Also Wednesday, a grand jury convened by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch heard preliminary evidence in the case. Protesters continued to insist that McCulloch stand down in favor of the federal probe, citing his close ties to the police force and what they call his record of bias in prosecuting police killings.
Tuesday night saw some young men throw bottles, but there was no tear gas, fewer arrests and less violence than the previous nights. Police credited community leaders and clergy, who were in the thick of the crowd, with helping to ease the tension.
Captain Ron Johnson called Tuesday a “turning point,” but whether that momentum can be sustained is still uncertain. For several nights last week, the mood appeared to be growing calmer, only for chaos and looting to return over the weekend.
Meanwhile, Brown’s family continued with the process of laying their son to rest. On Wednesday afternoon, Brown’s mother viewed her son’s body at the local morgue for the first time since his death.