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10:41 pm
Wed August 20, 2014

Holder Seeks To Soothe Nerves During Visit To Ferguson

Originally published on Thu August 21, 2014 8:07 am

The nation's top law enforcement officer traveled to Ferguson, Mo., on Wednesday to wrap his arms around a community in pain.

Attorney General Eric Holder hugged community leaders, a highway patrol captain and the mother of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old killed by a police officer earlier this month.

From the moment he walked into a soul food restaurant in Ferguson, the attorney general found friends and began getting reports on the community's mood after days of protests and sporadic violence.

Viola Murphy, the mayor of nearby Cool Valley, Mo., boasted about economic development and talked about the need to move past images of streets filled with tear gas and armored vehicles.

"There are a lot of good things that are going on in this community, so we kind of need to stick together and get this thing solved," Murphy told Holder at the restaurant. "Now eat some chicken wings."

A few minutes later Holder met the face of the recent police response to the protests, Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson. Holder reached over and drew the captain in for a hug and a few words of encouragement, telling Johnson that Tuesday night protests in the city had looked a little better and that Johnson was helping things improve.

Johnson said he had been so engulfed in work that he had forgotten his wedding anniversary, and Holder encouraged him to get some rest.

The captain said that he thought Holder's visit would show Ferguson residents that they were being heard, but that it will take time to heal the breach in the community.

"It's obvious that the community here does not feel that there's a connection with them and law enforcement, so that has to change," Johnson said.

That was the main reason the attorney general took some time on this heavily symbolic visit to meet with students at St. Louis Community College, Florissant Valley in northern St. Louis.

"We just need some answers, some questions, some changes, and we need some inspiration," said Molyric Welch, a sophomore at the college and a mother of three. "And by him being here now, that's giving us inspiration. We won't no longer be profiled because I have a hat to the back. ... No more profiling, no more war — we just want peace, and that's all."

During Holder's meeting at the community college, he shared his own story of being profiled — even after he'd become a successful lawyer — by police in Washington, D.C.

The attorney general also spoke by phone with the rapper Nelly, a Ferguson native who says he wants to help. A Justice Department spokeswoman says the two talked about maintaining peace and helping to inspire confidence in the justice system.

Later in the day at the U.S. attorney's office in St. Louis, Holder held a short private meeting with Michael Brown's mother, who had just come from viewing her son's body at the morgue. Holder promised the family a "fair and independent" inquiry.

Holder also met at the office with the the top prosecutors and FBI agents that the Justice Department has assigned to the case, as well as Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and members of the state's congressional delegation.

"There's nothing that can replace actually coming to the office that's handling the matter and being able to look in the face the people who are — very ably, to my mind — handling this investigation," he said.

Still, legal experts say the odds for a federal criminal prosecution of the officer who shot Brown remain long, which means the attorney general's visit to Ferguson was more of a listening tour than a prelude to indictment.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It was another relatively peaceful night in Ferguson, Missouri last night. Protesters say there are still unanswered questions, though, about what happened when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager nearly two weeks ago. The nation's top law enforcement official was there yesterday to check in on the federal investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown. Attorney General Eric Holder also offered comfort to a community in pain. NPR's Carrie Johnson went along on the trip and has this report.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: From the moment he walked into a soul food restaurant in Ferguson, the attorney general found friends.

JOHNSON: Eric Holder got dining recommendations and a report on the community's mood after days of protests and sporadic violence. Viola Murphy is mayor of nearby Cool Valley. She boasted about economic development and talked about the need to move past images of streets filled with tear gas and armored vehicles.

MAYOR VIOLA MURPHY: There are a lot of good things that are going on in this community so we kind of need to stick together and get this thing solved.

U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Yeah. We want to come out of this better stronger and we can do that.

MURPHY: Now eat some chicken wings.

HOLDER: All right.

JOHNSON: A few minutes later another community leader appeared. Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. He's been leading response to the protests. Holder reached over and drew the captain in for a hug and a few words of encouragement.

HOLDER: You are the man.

CAPTAIN RON JOHNSON: We're trying to make it better, we're trying to make it better.

HOLDER: You are making it better.

JOHNSON: Johnson said he'd been so busy trying to keep the peace that he forgot his 26th wedding anniversary.

HOLDER: You didn't forget, my brother?

RON JOHNSON: Yes, I did. She forgave me.

HOLDER: We'll write you a note, how about that?

JOHNSON: With that, Johnson turned to leave Drake's Place restaurant and return to work. but not before the attorney general reminded him to get some rest. Outside the restaurant, the captain told reporters it will take time to heal the breach in the community.

RON JOHNSON: It's obvious that the community here does not feel that there's connection with them and law enforcement. So that has to change.

JOHNSON: And that was the main reason Eric Holder took some time on this heavily symbolic visit, to meet with students at Florissant Valley Community College in northern St. Louis. Students like Molyric Welch; she's a 27-year-old sophomore with three kids at home.

MOLYRIC WELCH: We just need some answers, some questions, some changes. And by him being here now, that's giving us inspiration. We will no longer be profiled because I have a hat to the back. No more profiling, no more war. We just want peace and that's all.

JOHNSON: Profiling came up at Holder's meeting with Welch and about a dozen other students because he shared his own experience being profiled by police in Washington, even after he'd become a successful lawyer. Again, Molyric Welch.

WELCH: We talked with him and he spoke with us about the things that we were interested in and things that we were scared of, and how we feel being a college student. And I'm hoping that we're going to see some change.

JOHNSON: The attorney general also took some time for a private phone call with the rapper Nelly. He hails from Ferguson and says he wants to help there. A Justice Department spokeswoman says, they talked about maintaining peace and helping to inspire confidence in the justice system.

Later in the day at the U.S. Attorney's office in St. Louis, Holder closed the doors for a 20 minute meeting with the mother of Michael Brown. She had just come from viewing her son's body, adding a layer of anguish to an already emotional day. Aides said the attorney general approached the meeting as a father; as a person, but also as a law enforcement officer who wanted to connect the Brown family to victim services and answer their questions. Civil rights investigators at the FBI and Justice Department have interviewed more than 200 witnesses. Holder says he's put some of his top prosecutors and agents on the case and he wanted to hear from them in person.

HOLDER: There's nothing that can replace actually coming to the offices, handling the matter and being able to look in the face the people who are, I think at this point, very ably handling this investigation.

JOHNSON: Still, legal experts say the odds for a federal criminal prosecution of the officer who shot Brown remain long. Meaning, the attorney general's visit to Ferguson was more of a listening tour than a prelude to indictment.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.