Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday the Justice Department would protect the rights of peaceful protesters and journalists in Ferguson, Missouri. The St. Louis suburb has been engulfed in chaos and violent clashes in the days following the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.
“But violence cannot be condoned. I urge the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord,” Holder wrote in an op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Holder was scheduled to travel Wednesday to the predominantly black St. Louis suburb, where protesters have clashed with police over the killing of Brown, 18, who was unarmed at the time of his death.
Holder said he planned to meet with community members and officials to get an update on the investigation into Brown’s death. He said hundreds of people had been interviewed in the case. A grand jury convened by St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch was expected to begin hearing evidence on Wednesday.
Capt. Ron Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which is now in charge of security in Ferguson, cautioned Tuesday that it may be weeks or months before any action taken against six-year veteran police officer Darren Wilson, the man who shot Brown.
During an interview with msnbc’s Craig Melvin, Johnson also criticized some of the media coverage of Ferguson as giving a “platform” for the criminal element in the community to “glamorize their activity.”
On Tuesday afternoon, just three miles from Ferguson in St. Louis, a 23-year-old black man was shot and killed by two police officers during an altercation outside of a convenience store. The suspect was acting “erratically” and threatened the cops with a knife, according to police. When he refused to drop his weapon, they fired at him. No officers were injured, and an investigation into the incident is ongoing.
A crowd quickly formed on the scene of the St. Louis shooting, with protesters chanting the now familiar “Hands up, don’t shoot” refrain that has become synonymous with residents who want to demonstrate solidarity with Brown.
Johnson spoke at an early-morning press conference Tuesday amid violent clashes between protesters and police. Authorities cracked down on the remaining protesters just before midnight and demanded reporters leave the designated media staging area. Police once again fired tear gas at demonstrators, arrested 31 people, and shot at least two men as Monday drew to a close. Among authorities’ repeated shift in tactics, Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the Missouri National Guard to oversee the police command center.
A total of 78 people were arrested between late Monday and early Tuesday, the majority from Missouri. Five of the people arrested were from New York, three from Illinois, and three others from California. Most of the individuals detained were charged with “refusal to disperse.”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles denied the existence of a racial divide in the predominantly African-American St. Louis suburb, which has a total population of about 21,000 residents.
“There is not a racial divide in the City of Ferguson,” he said Tuesday on “NewsNation.” “That is the perspective of all residents in our city, absolutely.”
Last year, African-Americans accounted for 94% of arrests, 92% of searches, and 86% of vehicular stops, msnbc previously reported.
Officials in Ferguson continue to shift strategies, and have been criticized for sometimes deploying a heavily-armed force against demonstrators, including children.
The funeral for Brown is planned for next Monday, Aug. 25, according to the family lawyer, Benjamin Crump.
Brown’s parents continued to call for an end to violence on Tuesday over the unarmed teenager’s death. Lasting unrest in Ferguson is a “distraction” that “is really out of control,” Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, said Tuesday during an interview on the “TODAY” show.
“We need to keep the focus on Michael Brown Jr. That’s who we need to keep the focus on,” Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., added.
McSpadden reiterated her belief that justice — arresting Wilson and holding him accountable for her son’s death — is the only solution to bringing peace to Ferguson.
An attorney for the Brown family on Monday said he believed an independent autopsy report released over the weekend indicated that the 18-year-old unarmed teenager had been surrendering to police before he was killed. Wilson shot Brown at least six times, including twice to his head. But McSpadden said the autopsy doesn’t answer why Wilson used “excessive force” on her son.
The Brown family requested a separate autopsy be conducted aside from the preliminary report from local authorities and the federal examination later ordered by the U.S. attorney general’s office. The teenager’s parents didn’t want to rely on the results of the county’s autopsy, which Crump said was managed by “the same people who were responsible for executing their son in broad daylight.”
The federal autopsy was completed by Tuesday afternoon, law enforcement confirmed to NBC News.
Ferguson was the first topic discussed during a State Department briefing Tuesday. A reporter asked spokesperson Marie Harf about other countries criticizing the United States for the now-controversial shooting incident.
“We here in the United States will put our record for confronting our problems transparently and honestly and openly up against any other countries in the world,” she said. “People are free to say whatever they want. That’s something we believe in very deeply here. It’s freedom of expression. But I would certainly strongly disagree with the notion that what’s happening here is comparable in any way to situations in some of those countries.”
On Monday, President Barack Obama again urged the community to focus on healing instead of violence. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose office is conducting a civil rights investigation into the teenager’s death, plans to visit Ferguson on Wednesday.