U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. visited Ferguson on Wednesday, meeting with students, community leaders and the parents of Michael Brown in a fast-paced series of gatherings that coincided with one of the most peaceful days since the Aug. 9 fatal police shooting of the unarmed black 18-year-old touched off racial unrest and rioting in the town.
Holder sat down for lunch with residents at a diner and met briefly with Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is in charge of Ferguson security. Johnson told Holder that things were "getting better." Holder's response: "Get some rest."
Earlier, at the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College, Holder told students that, as a black man, he understood how the shooting had inflamed racial tensions, and he described discriminatory actions he encountered years ago with state troopers in New Jersey and police officers in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood.
"I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man. I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding. Pulled over.... 'Let me search your car.' ... Go through the trunk of my car, look under the seats and all this kind of stuff," he said. "I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me."
He also recalled an incident in which he was stopped by police in Georgetown during a nighttime jog with his cousin.
"Police car comes driving up, flashes his lights, yells, 'Where you going? Hold it!' I say, 'Whoa, I'm going to a movie.' Now my cousin started mouthing off. I'm like, 'This is not where we want to go. Keep quiet.' I'm angry and upset. We negotiate the whole thing and we walk to our movie," Holder said. "At the time that he stopped me, I was a federal prosecutor. I wasn't a kid. I was a federal prosecutor."
By day's end, Holder met with Brown's parents, Missouri lawmakers and FBI agents handling the federal investigation into whether Brown's civil rights were violated when he was shot by a Ferguson police officer.
He said he hoped his visit "will have a calming influence" on the area.
Students who attended the closed-door meeting described Holder as attentive and concerned with the long-standing issues between Ferguson police and residents and the attitudes that have prevailed in the racially disparate suburb long before Brown was killed.
Bradley Rayford, 22, a student at the college and a campus government leader, said Holder met for about 20 minutes with a group of black and white students. "He said the president wants to know what the students are feeling about the Police Department," said Rayford, who wore a suit and tie to the meeting.
Rayford, who is African American, told Holder that he did not feel harassed by local police, but that others did, especially when police repeatedly ticketed them, leading to a cycle of fines and warrants.
Patrick Green, mayor of neighboring Normandy, met with Holder during a subsequent gathering of about 60 local leaders, pastors and Ferguson residents.
Green said residents were able to air their concerns to Holder, who appeared willing to direct federal resources to help manage the crisis and "to help make better decisions in a timely manner."
"This is what the government should be doing," said Green, president of the state Assn. of Black Mayors, adding that the Ferguson shooting "could have happened to any one of our cities" and that local officials needed to restore public confidence in the justice system, in part by appointing an independent special prosecutor to handle the Brown case.
Green said there was an urgent need for accountability as the case headed to a grand jury this week.
"We have a small window here," he said. "This can be explosive; you're dealing with people's emotions."
Times staff writer James Queally in Los Angeles contributed to this report.