FERGUSON, Missouri — For the second time in as many summers, the nation’s first black Attorney General has promised to use federal resources to investigate the killing of an unarmed black teenager.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder arrived in this stubbornly segregated city as it exhales from days of violent protests and heavy-handed police rule following the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
“I am the attorney general of the United States,” Holder told a group of local college students. “But I am also a black man.”
As he did last summer in the wake of the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, Holder spoke of his own experiences with racial profiling, the police, and being black in America.
“I understand the mistrust,” he told them.
Holder later met with residents and community, faith and business leaders to underscore just how vigorously the Department of Justice is investigating Brown’s killing and working behind the scenes to cool tensions.
As rioting and protests have torn Ferguson apart since Brown’s killing, calls are rising for the Department of Justice to take over his case from local law enforcement. Far short of that, Holder has promised a clear and thorough investigation.
Holder’s visit is unprecedented but not unexpected. When President Barack Obama, America’s first black president, tapped him to be attorney general, Holder promised to use his office to aggressively enforce federal civil rights laws. When the Trayvon Martin case sparked national protests and anger, Holder sent his community relations service to Sanford, Florida to mediate and assured the DOJ would fully investigate to determine whether Martin’s civil rights had been violated.
Holder told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that he has been kept up-to-date on all of the details of the Brown case and that he has assigned some of the department’s most experienced investigators to it. The department’s case is separate from that being conducted by St. Louis County, in that the DOJ is looking specifically for possible violations of federal criminal civil rights statutes.
Holder has sent dozens of federal investigators to Ferguson to conduct interviews with witnesses and other residents, saying “I’m confident that through the ability of these people that we’ll be able to make a determination of whether or not any federal statutes have in fact been violated."
But more than a nod to the manpower assigned to the case, Holder’s visit offers some semblance of hope for Brown’s family and their supporters who don’t feel the case will be sufficiently investigated in St. Louis County.
Ferguson is a mostly black, poor and working class city with a long and troubling history of segregation and prejudice that residents say continues to manifest economically and politically. There are only three black police officers on the department’s 53-officer force. There are no blacks on the school board and the majority-black population has turned out abysmally low during elections.
Ferguson, residents say, used to be called “Sundown Town,” meaning, blacks had to be out by sundown. But mostly the prejudice manifests in interactions between blacks and the police, who they say routinely harass and target black residents. Though African-Americans are about 70% of the population, last yer they accounted for 94% of arrests, 92% of searches, and 86% of vehicular stops. The racial divide is deep, perhaps deeper through the lens of Brown’s killing.
In an interview with msnbc, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles insisted that there were no problems between blacks and whites and that everything was just fine. But residents tell another story. Holder heard a glimpse of their concerns on Wednesday.
“He really listened a lot to the residents. I think he has a good sense of what’s going on,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, who attended the meeting. “He spent most of his time hearing from residents, how they feel about everything and getting a good idea about what their concerns were and that he understood and that he wanted to focus a lot on having people in the room that can help them on what they need to do in the long term after the cameras go."
Pruitt said that Holder “reassured everybody that the Justice Department is doing what they are supposed to be doing in this investigation.” Pruitt added that Holder assured the group that the federal investigators leading the probe into Brown’s killing and a parallel look into past civil rights concerns regarding the Ferguson police department, is being handled by “the most experienced people who deal with these kinds of issues.”
“It is clear to me that the Justice Department is serious about getting to the bottom of this,” Pruitt said.
Much has been made of Ferguson’s long-standing racial divisions, but Pruitt said among those who joined Holder were both black and white, all of whom “said they want to see some healing.”
“No matter what happens from this point forward, obviously the police and the citizens of Ferguson are going to have to interact,” Pruitt said. “Either each and every time we’re going to work on improving that contact or we’re going to continue to have the animosity and distrust and do nothing about it and wait for a trial to be over that could be months or years, to try to fix it.”
Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, a six year police force veteran who police say shot Brown after the teen tried to take the officer's gun. But a number of witnesses refute those claims and say Wilson stopped Brown for walking in the street, grabbed him by the neck and shot him several times as he attempted to run away, hands in the air.
Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson said he immediately turned over the investigation to St. Louis County police to maintain the perception of transparency.
“I want to know the truth of what happened here. Because what it looks like could be very different from what actually happened,” Jackson told msnbc in a recent interview. “But we won't know that until somebody else investigates it. Because if I investigate it, you know, we don’t have the trust that we would need for somebody to say yeah, you did a good job. “
Also on Wednesday, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch presented preliminary evidence to a grand jury, kicking off a process that could help ease tensions in this still-tense community. Protesters outside McCulloch’s office in nearby Clayton, however, demanded that he recuse himself from the case in favor of the federal government.
Since Brown’s killing on Aug. 9, Brown's family and their advocates have said they do not believe local law enforcement or McCullough could impartially investigate this case.
“My hope is that through the trip that I’m making out here today and stressing the importance of the way that this investigation is going that hopefully we’ll have a calming influence on the area,” Holder told reporters. “If people know that a federal, thorough investigation is being done, being manned by these very capable people my hope is that that will give people a degree of confidence that the appropriate things are being done by their federal government.”
Back at St. Louis Community College, Holder commented on the hope and dashed trust so many African Americans have in law enforcement.
“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. “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.”