Dramatic change in Ferguson protests
FERGUSON, Missouri (CNN) — When night falls, it’s pitch dark on Ellison Drive, except for one street light shining on three school children shooting hoops.
Protest chants for justice for Michael Brown echo over from a block away.
The three have heard them for over a week. And on occasion, gunshots. Tear gas mist had filled Ellison Drive on many nights, stinging their eyes and noses and sending them running indoors.
“It was so foggy down here; it was foggy here every night,” says a girl named Taija.
But by early Thursday, all was quiet in Ferguson by night. For the first time since Michael Brown was fatally shot, streets emptied out.
Protest crowds thinned down the evening before from hundreds to dozens then disappeared. Thunderstorms in the Missouri town may have doused their numbers.
Late Wednesday, police made targeted arrests. Earlier in the day, they suspended an officer, who was caught on video pointing a semiautomatic rifle at peaceful protesters and shouting profanities at them the night before.
A small hubbub arose Wednesday, when two protesters held up signs supporting the officer who shot Brown. One read: “Justice for Police Officer Wilson.”
Other protesters argued with them heatedly, then police whisked them away.
But Wednesday was so peaceful, that state troopers had time to go buy a basketball for neighborhood youth and a net for their goal, which they installed, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson told reporters.
Before he spoke, a chaplain prayed, thanking God for a “better than all the nights we’ve had before.”
Comfort from Washington
After days of cries for justice, the judicial system moved forward earlier in the day.
The country’s top prosecutor visited Ferguson to check on a federal criminal investigation into possible civil rights violations in Brown’s shooting.
But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the highest ranking member of the Obama administration to come to town so far, also brought comfort, as he spoke with residents.
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, had just viewed her son’s bullet-riddled body at a morgue for the first time, when Holder met with her and Brown’s father. He pledged a “fair and independent” inquiry.
Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, 28, shot 18-year-old Brown on August 9.
Police say Brown had tried to wrest away Wilson’s weapon and charged at him. Witnesses have said Brown was trying to get away from Wilson and put his hands in the air, as Wilson fired on him.
Holder told residents that the federal government is listening, both to protesters calling for Wilson’s arrest and for an end to heavy police response, and to residents and law officers challenged with looting and violence from some in the crowd.
But for charges and a conviction in a federal civil rights case, authorities would have to prove “racial hostility,” said CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin — that Wilson somehow targeted Brown. Holder acknowledged the distinction on Wednesday.
Hugging the captain
Holder also met with Johnson, who has become a local hero after being credited with easing tensions of Ferguson residents and calming the police approach to crowd control.
The attorney general shook his hand then pulled him in for an embrace and a pat on the back. “You make a real difference,” Holder told Johnson.
With the weight of Ferguson on his shoulders, the captain had forgotten his own wedding anniversary, he told Holder. “We’ll write you a note,” Holder offered.
Slow wheels of justice
The heavier burden of justice lies with the state of Missouri. And on Wednesday, a grand jury began hearing evidence, a St. Louis County spokesman said.
It could take two months for jurors to bring charges against Wilson, if at all.
“The aspirational time is by mid-October to have everything completed,” St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch told CNN affiliate KMOV.
He wants the case to proceed through the grand jury “expeditiously” but also “thoroughly,” he said. “We’re not going to rush it through, and we’re not going to leave anything out.”
Controversy over prosecutor
Critics have complained that McCulloch, who is tasked with prosecuting Wilson, could be biased in the officer’s favor. McCulloch comes from a family of law enforcement officers.
His father was killed in the line of duty.
On Wednesday, McCulloch blasted Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon for his response to that controversy. Nixon had said he would not ask McCulloch to recuse himself, saying he found that it would disrupt established process.
McCulloch’s response: Nixon needs to “man up” and remove him, if he thinks it’s the right thing to do.
The state of emergency the governor declared on Saturday gave him the authority to do so, if he sees fit, McCulloch said during a radio interview on KTRS.
Nixon may have the option of installing a special prosecutor.
That would be a good idea, said Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who has been a protest fixture. The African-American community doesn’t trust McCulloch, he said, or law enforcement in general.