US 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.
He later met privately with Brown's parents at the St. Louis US Attorney's Office, but no details of that session were immediately available.
Also on Wednesday, a grand jury investigating the fatal shooting began hearing evidence in the case.
Before a briefing at local FBI headquarters, Holder said the thrust of his department's inquiry differed from the investigation conducted by local authorities.
"We are looking for violations of federal, criminal civil rights statutes," he said.
The Justice Department probe specifically seeks to determine whether federal prosecutors can bring criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown, for violating Brown's civil rights by use of excessive force.
His visit came hours after dozens of protesters were arrested in the latest street disturbances 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 predominantly 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.
An hour before sundown on Wednesday, a few dozen protesters began marching peacefully along a main thoroughfare that has been the scene of nightly demonstrations and sporadic violence.
The group chanted: "Hands up, don't shoot," which has become demonstrators' rallying cry, along a stretch of avenue fronted by businesses with boarded-up windows and the ruins of a gasoline station burned out in a previous night of unrest.
But heavy clouds brewing over Ferguson, accompanied by gusting winds and flashes of lightning in the distance, portended the possibility of protests being cut short.
Among students meeting with Holder at 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."
But Melvin Brown, 61, a pastor visiting Ferguson from Rockford, Illinois, to support the protests, was skeptical. "I don't have any faith in it," he said. "The whole system is corrupt."