August 14, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Escalating clashes

Missouri troopers to oversee Ferguson's unrest

Unrest over Ferguson teen's death forces Gov to strip police control

Youth lead the demonstration down W. Florissant Ave. during a peaceful march in Ferguson, Mo., on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. The march ended at Canfield Green Apartments, where Michael Brown was shot to death on Saturday. (Cristina Fletes-Boutte / MCT)

Florissant, Mo. — The Missouri Highway Patrol seized control of a St. Louis suburb Thursday, stripping local police of their law-enforcement authority after four days of clashes between officers in riot gear and furious crowds protesting the death of an unarmed black teen shot by an officer.

The intervention, ordered by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, came as President Barack Obama spoke publicly for the first time about Saturday’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent violence that has threatened to tear apart Ferguson, a town that is nearly 70 percent black patrolled by a nearly all-white police force.

Obama said there was “no excuse” for violence either against the police or by officers against peaceful protesters.

Nixon’s promise to ease the deep racial tensions was swiftly put to the test as demonstrators gathered again Thursday evening in the neighborhood where looters smashed and burned businesses on Sunday and police repeatedly fired tear gas and smoke bombs.

After a particularly violent Wednesday night, Nixon said Thursday that local police are no longer in charge of the area, although they would still be present. He said Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson was in command.

The change was meant to ensure “that we allow peaceful and appropriate protests, that we use force only when necessary, that we step back a little bit and let some of the energy be felt in this region appropriately,” Nixon said.

“Ferguson will not be defined as a community that was torn apart by violence but will be known as a community that pulled together to overcome it,” the governor said at a news conference in the nearby community of Normandy.

Johnson, who is black, said he grew up in the area and “it means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence.” He said he planned to keep heavily armored vehicles away from the scene and told his officers not to bring their tear gas masks.

By late afternoon, Johnson was walking down the street with a group of more than 1,000 protesters as they chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a reference to witness accounts that described Brown as having his hands in the air when the officer kept firing.

Johnson planned to talk to the demonstrators throughout the night.

“We’re going to have some conversations with them and get an understanding of what’s going on.”

St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schellman said officers on Wednesday night tossed tear gas to disperse a large crowd of protesters after some threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers.

Two reporters said they were detained by police for not clearing out quickly enough from a McDonald’s where they were working, near the protests but away from the more volatile areas. The two — Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, a former Detroit News intern in the summer of 2010, and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post — were released without any charges. Both say they were assaulted but not seriously hurt.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, center, prays Thursday during a meeting of clergy ... (Jeff Roberson / AP)
Late Wednesday, police used tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse large ... (Jeff Roberson / AP)