FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met with community members in Ferguson, Missouri, on Wednesday and vowed a thorough civil rights probe into the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager that has set off 11 nights of racially charged unrest.
Holder, the first African-American to head the Justice Department, met with students and then community leaders at a community college during a visit to Ferguson for a briefing on a Justice Department investigation into the Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
His visit came hours after nearly 50 protesters were arrested in the latest demonstrations since the shooting. Many of the protests have been peaceful, but others, especially smaller ones late at night, have been punctuated by looting, vandalism and clashes between demonstrators and police.
The turmoil has cast the St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people into the international spotlight as a symbol of often troubled U.S. race relations.
Ferguson is majority black, but its police force, political leadership and public education administration are dominated by whites. Activists and demonstrators have complained that Brown’s death was the culmination of years of unfair police targeting of blacks.
Among students meeting with Holder at the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College was Molyric Welch, 27, who said her brother died three years ago after Ferguson police used a stun gun on him.
“A lot has happened here,” she said. “He (Holder) promised things were going to change.”
Also on Wednesday, the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office began presenting evidence to a regularly seated grand jury investigating the fatal shooting.
Prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch said his office could continue presenting evidence to the grand jury - which meets once a week - through mid-October as he confronts conflicting pressures for speed and thoroughness.
“On one side, people are saying: ‘You’re rushing to justice,’ and on the other side, they’re saying: ‘You’re dragging this thing out,’” he told a news conference. “We’re going to present this as expeditiously as possible, but we are not going to present it in a half-hearted manner.”
Outside McCulloch’s office, a few dozen protesters called for his removal from the case and the immediate arrest of the officer involved in the shooting. The officer, 28-year-old Darren Wilson, has been placed on leave and gone into seclusion.
“The criminal justice system in America ... is as racist as it was 50 years ago,” said 62-year-old black minister Stanton Holliday, who said he was a longtime civil rights activist and was concerned that prosecutors were taking too long.
Accounts of Brown’s slaying differ. According to police, Wilson reported that Brown reached into the policeman’s cruiser when Wilson approached him on the street, then grabbed for the officer’s gun.
A companion of Brown said the teenager was initially shot after the officer tried to grab him through the car window and again after Brown staggered back with his hands in the air.
In the meeting at the community college, Holder said he had assigned the most experienced agents and prosecutors to the investigation, according to a briefing note from his office.
Hundreds of people have already been interviewed and federal medical examiners have performed an independent autopsy, the third conducted in the killing.
Holder, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and other officials have appealed for public calm.
The case has reignited a national debate over racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system and has drawn sharp words from top U.N. officials and human rights groups about police tactics and the need to respect the rights of protesters.
Police and the governor have insisted that thugs or outside agitators have caused most of the trouble at the nightly demonstrations.
On Tuesday, demonstrators were noticeably fewer in number and more subdued than on previous nights, but the relative calm dissolved just before midnight, as police in riot gear ordered lingering demonstrators to disperse, then charged into the crowd to make arrests.
Police said later they took 47 people into custody and seized several loaded firearms, but no gunshots were fired.
On the street where Brown died, and where a memorial occupies the center lane of the road, volunteers on Wednesday worked at tents set up to sign up people to vote to promote youth and community programs.
“People don’t have a voice. That leads to distrust,” said the Rev. Alvin Herring, director of the trauma healing team of the community organizing group PICO National Network, who came from Washington, D.C., to help launch the voter drive.
“In the case of Michael Brown, that led to death,” he added. “We are not saying that whites can’t represent African-Americans. We are saying African-Americans are perfectly capable of representing themselves.”
Additional reporting by Lucas Jackson and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney