FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - City leaders in Ferguson, Missouri, confronted demands for reform from an angry crowd on Tuesday night at their first public meeting since last month’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer ignited weeks of protests.
The atmosphere was charged from the opening minutes as members of a largely black audience that numbered in the hundreds shouted over remarks by city council members, rising out of their seats and chanting in solidarity.
Crowd members had to pass through metal detectors and security guards to attend the council meeting, held at an area church. Some wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” a phrase that has become a national rallying cry for activists protesting the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, and other acts of what they say are police abuse.
As council leaders attempted to discuss routine city business, one man shouted: “What about Mike Brown?”
Tensions have been high in the mostly black community of 21,000 people since the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown. Protesters are demanding the arrest of the officer who shot Brown, as well as the ouster of Mayor James Knowles III and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.
Council members warned the audience at the beginning of the meeting that though they would take public comments, council members would not answer questions, a declaration that angered the audience as the council sat largely silent as long lines of speakers issued demands and asked for answers.
The meeting came the day after a public relations firm representing the council announced a series of programs the council said should help reduce community concerns, including formation of a citizens’ review board to help improve law enforcement operations.
The council also said it was introducing an ordinance to reduce fines and other penalties levied in municipal court that many have alleged unfairly target blacks.
Many in the community said the proposals lacked crucial details and did not go far enough.
City and county officials have been under fire since the shooting of Brown by officer Darren Wilson spiraled into nightly protests and sometimes violent rioting in Ferguson. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency for the city, and sent in National Guard troops to try to quell the unrest.
In one particularly heated exchange at the council meeting, several people rushed toward the stage after the council refused to answer a question about whether Wilson was still on the city payroll. Security workers held the angry crowd back and church leaders urged calm and helped to persuade them to return to their seats.
Wild applause rang out from the crowd as people addressing the council called on Knowles to step down, and complained of ineffective city leadership, police harassment and racial profiling, among other grievances. Several also said that the police chief must be fired. Many warned that civil unrest would continue, and could expand if Wilson was not arrested.
“We are not going back to business as usual. We are holding you accountable,” 29-year-old Ashley Yates told the council.
When the city council ended the meeting after three hours, many audience members were still lined up for a turn to speak. As city council members exited the room, several angry audience members who attempted to make their way onto the stage were turned back by security guards.
CALLS FOR OFFICER’S ARREST
Many speakers on Tuesday night said the circumstances of Brown’s death demanded action against the officer.
Some witnesses have reported that the unarmed teenager had his hands in the air in surrender when Wilson shot him. Both witnesses and police have said there was an altercation between Brown and the officer that began when Wilson asked Brown and a friend to move out of a street they were walking down in a residential neighborhood.
Police said Brown struggled with Wilson before the shooting. An autopsy showed the teenager was shot at least six times, including twice in the head.
Wilson has been placed on paid administrative leave and has gone into hiding, as the county prosecutor presents evidence to a grand jury to determine if any charges are filed.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Brown’s parents, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups repeated their calls for Wilson to be arrested immediately, saying there was no reason to wait for a grand jury to review the evidence.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the shooting and also looking into accusations of racial profiling by Ferguson police.
Protests have continued in Ferguson and across the country over what demonstrators say is a long history of police intimidation and abuse of blacks in the St. Louis area and other U.S. cities.
A group called the Justice for Michael Brown Leadership Coalition said it was planning to block a major highway that runs through St. Louis on Wednesday.
Reporting by Carey Gillam; Additional reporting by Jason McLure; Writing by Fiona Ortiz, Carey Gillam, and Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Peter Cooney and Jeremy Laurence
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