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Missouri racial unrest grows; U.S. officials call for calm

Resident John West (L) hands a rose to a police officer, showing his appreciation with help in cleanup efforts in Ferguson, Missouri, August 19, 2014. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

FERGUSON, Missouri: U.S. lawmakers Tuesday called for calm and a change in police tactics in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, which has been rocked by racially charged clashes and riots after a white officer killed an unarmed black teenager 10 days ago.

The violence has captured headlines around the world, raising questions about the state of U.S. race relations nearly six years after Americans elected their first black president.

Law enforcement officials have made various efforts to soothe angry demonstrators, but police said they had come under heavy gunfire overnight and arrested 31 people, despite the deployment of Missouri National Guard troops and the lifting of a curfew to allow protesters to have more freedom to demonstrate.

“We overpoliced for a few days, and then we completely underpoliced,” U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, told cable channel MSNBC Tuesday.

She said she was working with local leaders on ways to quell the violence. Possible methods include screening for weapons and moving protest areas away from the business district to open green spaces.

Both she and U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, another Missouri Democrat, said calm was needed to allow investigators to evaluate the evidence. “What’s happening now is interfering with what needs to be done,” Cleaver told MSNBC.

President Barack Obama said Monday he told Missouri Governor Jay Nixon that use of the National Guard should be limited, and he also called for conciliation. Attorney General Eric Holder plans to visit Ferguson Wednesday.

Ferguson, a community of 21,000 residents, mostly black, just outside St. Louis, has a long history of racial tension. Blacks have complained of police harassment and under-representation in city leadership.

Tension boiled over 10 days ago after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead while walking with a friend down a residential street on the afternoon of Aug. 9.

The police refused to immediately release the name of the officer who killed Brown. They later identified him as 28-year-old Darren Wilson but and still have not provided details about why he fired multiple rounds at Brown.

The U.S. Justice Department and the St. Louis County Police Department are investigating the shooting. The county prosecutor’s office says it may start presenting evidence to a grand jury Wednesday to determine if Wilson will be indicted.

Since the killing, thousands of protesters have taken over the site of the shooting and the nearby business district each night, chanting anti-police slogans and carrying signs calling for Wilson’s arrest.

Some journalists covering the confrontations have been hit by tear gas and arrested.

The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an intergovernmental security and human rights organization whose members include 57 countries including the United States and Canada, criticized the treatment of the journalists Tuesday.

Officials had hoped that the lifting of a curfew imposed over the weekend would cool tensions and end the looting and violence. Police also closed a roadway to traffic to provide a path for marchers Monday.

But police said some in the crowd hurled bottles, rocks and Molotov cocktails at officers, who responded by firing gas-filled canisters and a noise cannon to disperse the throng.

State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who is overseeing security in Ferguson, said officers had come under “heavy gunfire” but did not return it. Four officers were injured, he said.

Riot police confiscated two guns and what looked like a Molotov cocktail from protesters.

Johnson separately told CNN that two people had been shot within the crowd, but not by police, and were taken to hospital. There was no immediate word on their condition.

“This has to stop,” said Johnson, an African-American who grew up in the area. “I don’t want anybody to get hurt. We have to find a way to stop this.”

The disturbances are the worst since the angry but peaceful protests across the United States in July 2013, over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic who killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin during a scuffle in Florida.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 20, 2014, on page 11.

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Summary

U.S. lawmakers Tuesday called for calm and a change in police tactics in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, which has been rocked by racially charged clashes and riots after a white officer killed an unarmed black teenager 10 days ago.

The violence has captured headlines around the world, raising questions about the state of U.S. race relations nearly six years after Americans elected their first black president.

Law enforcement officials have made various efforts to soothe angry demonstrators, but police said they had come under heavy gunfire overnight and arrested 31 people, despite the deployment of Missouri National Guard troops and the lifting of a curfew to allow protesters to have more freedom to demonstrate.

State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who is overseeing security in Ferguson, said officers had come under "heavy gunfire" but did not return it.

Riot police confiscated two guns and what looked like a Molotov cocktail from protesters.


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