ST., LOUIS/FERGUSON MISSOURI – On the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson is vilified by protesters for shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager.
Away from the front lines, however, a small but growing band of supporters is starting to speak up for the white policeman, saying he is being unjustly attacked for doing his job.
Wilson, who is under investigation for shooting Michael Brown on Aug. 9, has been in hiding since the incident brought to a boil the racial tensions in the St. Louis suburb.
Police have released little information about Wilson, a divorced 28-year-old officer whose chief described him as a gentle and quiet man.
At Barney’s Sports Bar in St. Louis, owned by a police officer, patrons said they worried Wilson was not being given the benefit of the doubt.
“I think he’s innocent until proven guilty. In fact, I know. That’s the Constitution,” said Paul Beauregard Morton, who works in financial services, as he sat at the bar on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m going to wait until the facts come out. That’s what everyone should be doing.”
A weekend rally in support of Wilson is planned at the bar.
Another bar patron, Lee Whitson, said: “People are up in arms calling it murder, calling it an execution. I feel like it is very much just a racial thing. If you want to protest, they should protest black-on-black crime.”
For many protesters in Ferguson, a mostly black suburb, Wilson is emblematic of a predominantly white police force that they say targets blacks, treating them like second-class citizens.
Near the spot where Brown was killed, a man held a placard on Wednesday bearing pictures of Wilson and reading, “We demand justice.”
Public reaction to the police response in Ferguson has been mixed nationally, showing divisions along color and political lines, according to a Reuters/IPSOS poll released on Tuesday.
At the “I Support Officer Wilson” Facebook site, which had nearly 50,000 “likes” as of Wednesday, most people posting comments saw Wilson as being caught in a risky situation where he was acting in a professional manner.
“Officer Wilson and the Ferguson P.D. are being railroaded by the liberal media,” Facebook user Kevin Chicwak wrote. “My family and I stand by them. Keep the faith.”
But the site has also been riddled with racially charged comments, prompting the organizers to issue a note for people to “play nice” and warned that anything that crossed the line into hateful speech would be deleted.
The New Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan said on its website it planned a fundraiser in Sullivan, Missouri, over the weekend and had members going to areas near Ferguson to guard white businesses.
More than 2,000 people have contributed about $85,000 to a web-based site on gofundme.com site, offering financial support to Wilson.
The six-year police veteran has faced death threats and has not spoken on why he fired multiple shots at the teen after a confrontation in the street near his squad car.
People describing themselves as friends of Wilson have tried to present a different narrative to deflect blame from the officer in voice appearances on television and radio. St. Louis television station KSDK reported that more than 100 people rallied on Sunday night for Wilson.
“He’s a really quiet guy,” one friend who asked not to be named told ABC News. “He’s just really well-mannered. He’s very respectful.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson on Wednesday and sought to reassure people about the investigation into the shooting. He said he understands why many black Americans do not trust police, recalling how he was repeatedly stopped by officers who seemed to target him because of his race.
He remembered how he was stopped twice on a New Jersey highway and accused of speeding. Police searched his car, going through the trunk and looking under the seats.
“I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me,” Holder said during a private meeting with about 50 community leaders at the Florissant campus of St. Louis Community College.
Holder also met with federal officials investigating Brown’s death and with Brown’s parents.
While living in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, Holder was once running to catch a movie with his cousin when a squad car rolled up and flashed its lights at the pair. The officer yelled, “Where are you going? Hold it!” Holder recalled.
His cousin “started mouthing off,” and Holder urged him to be quiet.
“We negotiate the whole thing, and we walk to our movie. At the time that he stopped me, I was a federal prosecutor. I wasn’t a kid,” he said.
Holder also met briefly with Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who has been in charge of security in the community for nearly a week since relieving Ferguson police. The National Guard has also been called in to help keep the peace.
Asked whether he had confidence in the local investigation of the police officer, Johnson said Holder’s presence “is a guarantee on that.”