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Associated Press
A protester takes shelter from smoke billowing around him Wednesday in Ferguson, Mo. Police fired smoke bombs and tear gas to disperse protesters.

Turmoil, tear gas give way to hope in Ferguson

– County police in riot gear and armored tanks gave way to state troopers walking side-by-side with thousands of protesters as the St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teen was shot by a city police officer overwhelmingly avoided violence Thursday after nearly a week of unrest and mounting public tension.

The dramatic shift came after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon assigned oversight of the protests to the state Highway Patrol, stripping local police from the St. Louis County Police Department of their authority after four days of clashes with furious crowds protesting the weekend death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

“All they did was look at us and shoot tear gas,” said Pedro Smith, 41, who has participated in the nightly protests. “This is totally different. Now we’re being treated with respect.”

The more tolerant response came as President Barack Obama spoke publicly for the first time about Saturday’s fatal shooting – and the subsequent violence that shocked the nation and threatened to tear apart Ferguson, a town of 21,000 that is nearly 70 percent black and patrolled by a nearly all-white police force.

Obama said there was “no excuse” for violence either against the police or by officers against peaceful protesters.

Nixon’s promise to ease the deep racial tensions was swiftly put to the test as demonstrators gathered again Thursday evening in the neighborhood where looters had smashed and burned businesses on Sunday and where police had repeatedly fired tear gas and smoke bombs.

But the latest protests had a light, almost jubilant atmosphere among the racially mixed crowd, more akin to a parade or block party. The streets were filled with music, free food and even laughter. When darkness fell –the point at which previous protests have grown tense – no uniformed officers were in sight outside the burned-out QuikTrip convenience store that had become a flashpoint for standoffs between police and protesters.

“You can feel it. You can see it,” protester Cleo Willis said of the change. “Now it’s up to us to ride that feeling.”

Nixon appointed Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black, to lead the police effort. Johnson, who grew up near Ferguson and commands a region that includes St. Louis County, marched alongside protesters Thursday, joined by other high-ranking brass from the Highway Patrol as well as the county department. The marchers also had a police escort.

“We’re here to serve and protect,” Johnson said. “We’re not here to instill fear.”

Several people stopped to shake hands and even hug Johnson and other officers, thanking them by name.

At one point, Johnson spoke to several young men wearing red bandanas around their necks and faces. After the discussion, one of the men reached out and embraced him. At the QuikTrip, children drew on the ground with chalk and people left messages about Brown.

Obama had appealed for “peace and calm” on the streets.

“I know emotions are raw right now in Ferguson, and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened,” Obama said. “But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family.”

Residents in Ferguson have complained about the police response that began soon after Brown’s shooting with the use of dogs for crowd control – a tactic that for some evoked civil-rights protests from a half-century ago. The county police had taken over the investigation of Brown’s shooting and security at the request of the smaller city.

Nixon vowed that “Ferguson will not be defined as a community that was torn apart by violence but will be known as a community that pulled together to overcome it.” The governor was joined at a news conference by the white mayor of St. Louis and the region’s four state representatives and the county executive, all of whom are black.

The city and county remain under criticism, though, for refusing to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing threats against that officer and others. The hacker group Anonymous on Thursday released a name purported to be that of the officer, but the Ferguson police chief said the name was incorrect.

Like last year’s Trayvon Martin shooting, social media brought international attention to the tragedy. Ferguson spawned a proliferation of hashtags and has been a dominant subject on Twitter, Facebook and other sites. Journalists and protesters offered real-time pictures, videos and updates, and the world responded.

Police have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car. The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times.

Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown, has told a much different story. He has said the officer ordered them out of the street, then grabbed his friend’s neck and tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He says Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times.

Attorney General Eric Holder has said federal investigators have interviewed witnesses to the shooting. A person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said federal authorities have interviewed Johnson. Holder spoke by telephone Thursday with Brown’s family.

In St. Louis, Brown’s mother appeared briefly Thursday night at an anti-brutality gathering near the city’s Gateway Arch, urging through a relative for peace to prevail. The observance was among many staged nationwide, each with a minute of silence for Brown and others affected by alleged police brutality.

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Associated Press writers Jim Salter and Jim Suhr in St. Louis, Eric Tucker in Washington and Hillel Italie in New York, and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner, also in New York, contributed to this report.

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Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier

Guide to developments in Missouri police shooting

After an unarmed black teenager was shot by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, the city north of downtown St. Louis was the scene of violent protests. Here’s a look at the key elements of the shooting and the unrest that followed:

THE SHOOTING: The shooting happened Saturday after an officer encountered 18-year-old Michael Brown and another man on the street. Police have said that one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car. The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times. Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown when the shooting happened, has told a much different story. He has told reporters that the officer ordered them out of the street, then tried to open his door so close to the men that it “ricocheted” back, apparently upsetting the officer. Johnson says the officer grabbed his friend’s neck, then tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He says Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times. Johnson and another witness both say Brown had his hands raised when the officer fired at him repeatedly.

THE UNREST: Since the shooting, crowds have gathered to protest Brown’s death. On Sunday night, a day after the shooting, some residents were seen looting stores, damaging buildings and vandalizing property. On the following nights, officers from multiple departments in riot gear and in military equipment clashed with protesters, who chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Police used tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse large crowds, including on Wednesday night when some people threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers. The police response drew heavy criticism, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced Thursday that the state would be taking over supervising security, with Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson – a Ferguson native who is black – leading the effort. The protests Thursday had a much lighter atmosphere, with several people stopping to shake hands and even hug Johnson and other officers. The tone held when darkness fell – the point at which previous protests have grown tense.

THE POLICE TACTICS: The events in Ferguson have been seen as part of a growing trend among police departments around the country. The American Civil Liberties Union in June released a report stating that police were overwhelmingly relying on SWAT raids – involving the use of assault rifles, battering rams and flash-bang grenades – for routine work such as searching for small amounts of drugs and serving warrants.

THE INVESTIGATION: Brown’s death is being investigated by St. Louis County police at the request of the smaller police department in Ferguson. The FBI has also opened an investigation into possible civil rights violations. The city and county have faced criticism for refusing to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing threats against that officer and others. The hacker group Anonymous on Thursday released a name purported to be that of the officer, but the Ferguson police chief said that the name was incorrect.

THE PUBLIC DISCUSSION: Some civil rights leaders have drawn comparisons between Brown’s death and that of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by a Florida neighborhood watch organizer who was later acquitted of murder charges. The St. Louis case has provoked a broad discussion on social media sites about the death of young black men in racially tinged shootings. On Twitter, a campaign using the hashtag (hash)IfTheyGunnedMeDown has prompted many black users to post photos of themselves and ask how they might be portrayed in news reports if they became shooting victims.

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