U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sought to reassure the people of Ferguson about the investigation into the shooting death of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer and 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.
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Holder made the remarks Wednesday during a visit to the St. Louis suburb that has been wracked by more than a week of unrest since the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown. The Obama administration intended the trip to underscore its commitment to civil rights in general and the Ferguson case in particular.
Holder 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.
Being stopped because of race
While living in the Georgetown neighbourhood 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."
In nearby Clayton, a grand jury began hearing evidence to determine whether the officer, Darren Wilson, should be charged in Brown's death.
A spokesman for St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch said there was no timeline for the process, but it could take weeks.
At the college, Holder told his audience that the most experienced agents and prosecutors would be assigned to the Ferguson investigation.
'The same kid who got stopped on the New Jersey freeway is now the attorney general of the United States... This country is capable of change. But change doesn't happen by itself." - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
Outside the St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton, where the grand jury convened, two dozen protesters gathered in a circle for a prayer, chanted and held signs urging McCulloch to step aside.
McCulloch's deep family connections to police have been cited by some black leaders who question his ability to be impartial in the case. McCulloch's father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect.
The prosecutor, who is white, has insisted his background will have no bearing on the handling of the Brown case, which has touched off days of nighttime protests during which authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the streets.
Some protesters returned to the streets Wednesday evening but in diminishing numbers. They marched around a single block as a thunderstorm filled the sky with lighting and dumped rain. Police still stood guard, but many wore regular uniforms rather than riot gear.
Police said an officer had been suspended for pointing a semi-automatic assault rifle at demonstrators, then cursing and threatening to kill one of them. A protester captured the exchange on video Tuesday and posted it to YouTube and other websites.
In a letter published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, Holder promised a thorough investigation while calling for an end to the violence in Ferguson. He said the bond of trust between law enforcement and the public is "all-important" but also "fragile."
Arrest patterns "must not lead to disparate treatment under the law, even if such treatment is unintended. And police forces should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve," Holder wrote.
The Justice Department has mounted an unusually swift and aggressive response to Brown's death, conducting an independent autopsy and sending dozens of FBI agents to Ferguson in search of witnesses to the shooting.
Holder said the Obama administration has been trying to achieve change through the Justice Department's civil rights division.
"The same kid who got stopped on the New Jersey freeway is now the attorney general of the United States," he added. "This country is capable of change. But change doesn't happen by itself."