FERGUSON (REUTERS) - Missouri's governor ordered the withdrawal of National Guard troops from the strife-torn town of Ferguson on Thursday as tensions appeared to ease after nearly two weeks of racially charged protests over the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown.
Demonstrations after dark on Wednesday marked one of the calmest nights of street gatherings in the St. Louis suburb since the unarmed 18-year-old youth was gunned down by a white police officer on Aug. 9 under disputed circumstances.
The Brown shooting has sparked nightly rallies punctuated in most instances by looting, vandalism and clashes between demonstrators and heavily armed riot police, often ending in volleys of tear gas and dozens of arrests.
The turmoil has cast the community of 21,000 people into the international spotlight as an emblem of often-troubled U.S. race relations.
Although Ferguson is predominantly African American, its political leadership, police department and public school administration are dominated by whites. Civil rights activists say Brown's death was the culmination of years of unfair police targeting of blacks.
With civic leaders and clergy urging demonstrators in recent days to maintain order and to leave the streets after sundown, protesters have grown thinner in number and generally more subdued.
Despite scattered gunshots and a police officer being hit by a water bottle, just six people were arrested late Wednesday and early Thursday, far fewer than the scores detained during previous nights.
"Crowds were smaller, they were calm and orderly," said State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, a black officer placed last week in command of a local police force widely criticized for heavy-handed tactics that seemed to be stoking civil unrest. "The trend is good."
National Guard troops, who were deployed to Ferguson to assist police at the height of disturbances but have kept a relatively low profile during demonstrations, were ordered by Governor Jay Nixon to begin pulling out of the community.
"We continue to see improvement," Nixon said in a statement.
The withdrawal came a day after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson to meet with Brown's parents and other residents, and to review the status of a federal civil rights investigation he has ordered into Brown's slaying.
Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, who viewed her son's body for the first time on Wednesday at a local morgue shortly before meeting Holder, said his assurances held helped restore her faith that justice could be done.
"Just hearing the words come directly from his mouth, face-to-face, made me feel like, one day, I will," she told CNN on Thursday. "And I'm not saying today, or yesterday, but one day, they will regain my trust."
Brown's parents and supporters have been calling for the immediate arrest of the Darren Wilson, 28, the police officer who shot their son. Wilson has been placed on leave and gone into seclusion.
A local grand jury met on Wednesday to begin hearing evidence in the Brown case, a process that St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said could last into mid-October.
Brown's family and protesters are demanding that the local criminal probe be turned over to special prosecutor, saying McCulloch has a record of discriminatory handling of cases involving police accused of misconduct against blacks.
McCulloch, whose father was a police officer killed in the line of duty by a black man, has promised a fair and impartial investigation.
State Senator Jamilah Nasheed arrived at McCulloch's office on Thursday presenting petitions calling for his removal from the case.
"I am here to deliver a message to Bob McCulloch that the people do not have any confidence in him," Nasheed said. "The people's opinion is that he totally has no ability to do the right thing."
Despite lingering expressions of anger and distrust, the prevailing mood in Ferguson appeared to be lifting. "Things are de-escalating," said Roy Harris outside Original Reds B-B-Q, located on West Florissant Avenue, where many of the protests have taken place.
The restaurant has boarded up its windows, but written in large letters in red paint on the plywood planks is the promise: "We will be back," and workers were selling sandwiches in the parking lot next to an outdoor meat smoker.
"We are seeing the judicial process beginning," said Harris, who works as a youth counselor in St. Louis. "Voices are actually being heard."
In Washington, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill announced she would lead a Senate hearing next month to review the militarization of local police departments, in light of the armored vehicles and combat-like equipment police have deployed on the streets of Ferguson in recent weeks.
Holder has said such displays should end.
In the residential neighbourhood tucked behind the site of the protests, where some residents have complained about tear gas spilling into their backyards, people said they were hoping for a repeat of Wednesday night's calm.
"I really wish it could end. My granddaughters have been out there and I worry for them," said Mary Buchanan, who lives with her 13- and 14-year-old grandchildren. "Don't get me wrong. I am for that boy who got killed, but we need to stop this violence."
Outside a fast-food restaurant on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, a small contingent of young black men held a homemade wanted poster for Wilson, just blocks from the street where Brown was killed.
They warned there would be no lasting peace until the officer was brought to justice. "For us he is a wanted man. It is time for calm and peace but only if they bring him to justice," said 23-year-old Dontey Carter, shirtless with a scarf wrapped around his head.