Ferguson unrest: Protest marks two weeks since police shooting

Demonstrator rally for Michael Brown while marching through Chinatown in Washington, DC on Aug 23, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Demonstrator rally for Michael Brown while marching through Chinatown in Washington, DC on Aug 23, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

FERGUSON (REUTERS) - Demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, gathered in intense heat on Saturday to mark two weeks since a white police officer shot dead an unarmed black teenager, while supporters of the officer said in a separate rally that the shooting was justified.

The demonstrations remained peaceful, marking the third day of relative calm for the St. Louis suburb following daily unrest since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug 9.

Authorities had logged dozens of arrests nightly as police clashed with demonstrators in protests that have focused international attention on often-troubled US race relations.

Police came under sharp criticism for making mass arrests and using heavy-handed tactics and military gear widely seen as provoking more anger and violence.

President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the distribution of military hardware to state and local police out of concern over how such equipment has been used in Ferguson, a senior administration official said on Saturday.

The White House also announced that three presidential aides would attend Brown's funeral on Monday. About 70 people marked the two weeks since Brown's death by praying at a makeshift memorial where he was shot and launching into a rendition of "We Shall Overcome" at the time when the fatal encounter began.

Tracey Stewart-Parks, 52, who works in accounting for a health care firm, carried a sign that read "Mike Brown was someone's son - I walk for their son." She said something similar could have happened to any of her four sons.

"All of them have had to learn the rules of driving black and they're lucky it wasn't them," she said. "This has been a long time coming and I do believe we shall overcome. It's time to rip the Band-Aid off this old wound. It's time for change."

Hundreds of people marched on Saturday afternoon in a St. Louis County rally wearing brightly coloured T-shirts, many holding umbrellas for shade as temperatures hit 37 deg C.

Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, commander of the police response to the demonstrations, who is black, and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who is white, joined the head of the march.


About 22 km away in St. Louis, dozens of supporters of the officer gathered at Barney's Sports Pub to raise money for Wilson's family. Some held signs that said "innocent until proven guilty" and asked drivers to honk their car horns as they passed in support. Many did honk.

"We are here to support you, Officer Wilson, and we've got your back. He has been vilified in the news but his story is coming out," St. Louis resident Mark Rodebaugh said.

A statement from rally organisers said in part, "our mission is to formally declare that we share the united belief that Officer Wilson's actions on Aug 9 were warranted and justified and he has our unwavering support."

Little information has been released about the investigation of the shooting. A grand jury of three blacks and nine whites began hearing evidence on Wednesday in a process the county prosecutor has said could run until mid-October.

The National Guard began a gradual withdrawal from Ferguson on Friday, but authorities remain braced for a possible flare-up of civil disturbances ahead of Brown's funeral. The violent clashes have tapered but demonstrations continue.

Local activists, clergy, US civil rights workers and community activists from around the country have set up shop in Ferguson and say they plan to stay for an extended period. In part they want to work on ways to improve Ferguson, a community of 21,000 that is about 70 per cent African American but where almost all the police and politicians are white.

Civil rights activists say Brown's death followed years of police targeting blacks in the community. The suspension of two area police officers in recent days highlighted the divide. A St. Louis County officer, Dan Page, on Friday was placed in an administrative position pending an internal investigation after a video surfaced in which he boasted of being "a killer,"made disparaging remarks about Muslims and expressed the view that the United States was on the verge of collapse.

Belmar called the comments by Page, a 35-year force veteran and former US serviceman, "bizarre" and unacceptable.

Two days earlier, 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.