FERGUSON, MISSOURI – Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, were muted for a third straight evening on Friday as National Guard troops began withdrawing from the St. Louis suburb, racked by nearly two weeks of racial turmoil after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager to death.
Dozens of protesters marched along a street near the site of the Aug. 9 slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown, chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” The acting police commander, a black highway patrol captain placed in charge a week earlier, ventured out to greet demonstrators.
Clergy volunteers wearing bright orange T-shirts mingled with the marchers to help keep the crowd calm.
At St. Mark Family Church, a hub for protest organizers, activists and residents met to pray and work on plans to improve the predominantly black community of 21,000 in the wake of unrest that has focused international attention on often-troubled U.S. race relations.
Despite a notable easing of tensions in recent days, police were bracing for a possible flare-up of civil disturbances ahead of Brown’s funeral, which is planned for Monday.
Police in Ferguson came under sharp criticism, especially in the first several days of demonstrations, for the use of heavy-handed tactics and military gear, which were widely seen as provoking more anger and violence by protesters.
In the latest embarrassment for local law enforcement, an officer from the St. Louis County Police Department was removed from active duty on Friday after a video surfaced in which he boasted of being “a killer.”
Officer Dan Page, a 35-year-veteran of the police force and a military veteran, was relieved of patrol duties and placed in an administrative position pending an internal investigation, a police department spokesman said.
In the video, Page is seen addressing a St. Louis chapter of the Oath Keepers, a conservative group of former servicemen, saying: “I’m also a killer. I’ve killed a lot, and if I need to, I’ll kill a whole bunch more. If you don’t want to get killed, don’t show up in front of me.” He also expressed the view that the United States is on the verge of collapse.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar apologized for the comments in the video, saying in a statement that while Page “has never been involved in an officer-involved shooting, the statements made about killing are unacceptable and not what we are about as a department.”
Two days earlier, another St. Louis-area policeman, an officer from the town of St. Ann, was suspended indefinitely for pointing a semi-automatic assault rifle at a peaceful demonstrator and yelling obscenities.
The incidents have highlighted the racial divide in Ferguson, a largely black town where the police force and local politicians are almost all white. Civil rights activists say Brown’s death was the culmination of years of police unfairly targeting blacks.
Police made only isolated arrests Wednesday and Thursday nights. But some cautioned the calm may not hold, noting that weekend nights can often be more combustible, since more people tend to be on the streets. Emotions could also run high the day of the funeral.
“Monday night will be a critical night,” said Bishop Edwin Bass, president of the St. Louis church Urban Initiatives of the Church of God In Christ. “The funeral could have a big impact on the mood of the community.”
The White House said it was encouraged by developments over the past few days and that President Barack Obama was receiving regular briefings on the situation in Ferguson.
A local grand jury, made up of three blacks and nine whites, met this past week to begin hearing evidence in the case, a process that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said could last into mid-October. Nine votes are needed for an indictment.
Vanessa Spencer, 46, a cafeteria manager who lives in St. Louis, took part in Friday’s protests, waving a sign reading, “Keep calm change coming.” Next to her was her sister, Linda Bell, 57, a cook, with a sign saying, “Together we stand 4 peace 4 Mike Brown.”
“But with a grand jury that is mostly white, are we going to get justice?” Bell asked.
In addition to local activists and clergy, a contingent of civil rights workers and community activists from Georgia, Florida, Detroit and elsewhere have set up shop in Ferguson and say they plan to remain in town for an extended period.
The patchwork of groups, including the Dream Defenders and the National Lawyers Guild, are holding training and strategy sessions for local young people and others who want to continue to peacefully protest Brown’s death. They are instructing teams of “legal observers” on how to document complaints of police harassment and abuse.
“This is going to be a part of history. It really is,” said Christi Griffin, 58, a black attorney from St. Louis who helped organize activities at the church meeting on Friday night before a small group of protesters left for the street clad in protective helmets.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the National Guard deployment to help police quell looting and vandalism that erupted during previous nights of protests, but the troops have largely kept a low profile. Nixon on Thursday ordered their withdrawal to begin.
Brown’s parents and supporters have been calling for the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson, 28, the police officer who shot their son. Wilson has been placed on paid leave and has gone into seclusion.