NEW YORK/FLORISSANT, MISSOURI – Thousands of people across America attended protest vigils Thursday for an unarmed black Missouri teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer and for other victims who organizers say died as a result of police brutality.
The vigils, observed in more than 90 cities as part of a National Moment of Silence, came days after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the death of a New York man due to a police officer’s chokehold.
Missouri’s governor said state police will take over supervising security from local police in the St. Louis suburb that has been the scene of violent protests since the shooting, the governor announced.
President Barack Obama has appealed for “peace and calm” on the streets of Ferguson, a predominantly black city where crowds have gathered to protest since Saturday’s shooting.
Gov. Jay Nixon announced that state Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black, will take over security after the local police response drew heavy criticism.
Nixon’s promise to ease 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 police had fired tear gas and smoke bombs.
Johnson said he grew up in the community, and “it means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence.” He planned to keep heavily armored vehicles away from the scene and told his officers not to bring tear gas masks.
In downtown St. Louis, in a tiny park near the Gateway Arch, several hundred people, seemingly an equal number whites and blacks, gathered Thursday in Brown’s memory.
The site is a short drive from Ferguson, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black and all but three of the 53 police officers are white.
The attendees included Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, who didn’t address the crowd but waved, drawing applause as she wiped away tears.
The observance was among many staged nationwide, each with a minute of silence for Brown and others who have died at the hands of police.
In New York, thousands of people gathered in Manhattan’s Times Square and Union Square, invoking the rallying cries “hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe,” alluding to the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, who was arrested on suspicion of selling untaxed loose cigarettes and was placed in an officer’s chokehold.
Garner, who had asthma, can be heard on tape saying, “I can’t breathe!” and died a short time later.
New York’s police commissioner has said officers will be retrained on the use of force.
Police in Ferguson have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street and one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car and physically assaulted him.
Images of police outfitted in paramilitary gear clashing with protesters in suburban St. Louis are giving new impetus to efforts to rein in a Pentagon program that provides free machine guns and other surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns in September to curb what he describes as an increasing militarization of police agencies.
Attorney General Eric Holder said he is concerned that use of military equipment by police in Ferguson is sending a “conflicting message.” He said authorities there have accepted the Justice Department’s offer of crowd-control help.
A spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the government’s combat logistics support agency, said the Ferguson Police Department has been part of the surplus equipment program. It received two tactical vehicles — both Humvees — plus a generator and a trailer and may have received other equipment, a DLA spokesman said.