FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri Highway Patrol seized control of a St. Louis suburb Thursday, stripping local police of their law-enforcement authority after four days of clashes between officers in riot gear and furious crowds protesting the death of an unarmed black teen shot by an officer.
The intervention, ordered by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, came as President Barack Obama spoke publicly for the first time about Saturday’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent violence that shocked the nation and threatened to tear apart Ferguson, a town that is nearly 70 percent black 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 smashed and burned businesses on Sunday and police repeatedly fired tear gas and smoke bombs.
But the latest protests were a world apart from the earlier demonstrations, with a light, even festive atmosphere and no hint of violence. The streets were filled with music, free food and even laughter.
Protester Cleo WIllis said the change was palpable.
“You can feel it. You can see it,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to ride that feeling.”
After a particularly violent Wednesday night, Nixon said local police would no longer be in charge of the area, although they would still be present. He said Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black, would be in command.
The change was meant to ensure “that we allow peaceful and appropriate protests, that we use force only when necessary, that we step back a little bit and let some of the energy be felt in this region appropriately,” Nixon said.
“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 said at a news conference in the nearby community of Normandy.
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.
Johnson said he grew up in the area and “it means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence.” He said he planned to keep heavily armored vehicles away from the scene and told his officers not to bring their gas masks.
By late afternoon, Johnson was walking down the street with a large group of protesters as they chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a reference to witness accounts that described Brown as having his hands in the air when the officer kept firing. He planned to talk to the demonstrators throughout the night.
“We’re going to have some conversations with them and get an understanding of what’s going on.”
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 burned-out QuikTrip near the shooting scene, children drew on the ground with chalk and people left messages about Brown.
Earlier Thursday, Obama appealed for “peace and calm” on the streets.