Two Department of Justice “protest marshals” are in Ferguson, Mo., to help train people taking part in demonstrations over the fatal police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
That’s according to Ferguson mayor James Knowles, who spoke with The Daily Caller Wednesday evening.
The town of about 20,000 just north of St. Louis has become the flash point of racial strife after a Ferguson police officer shot Brown following an altercation on Saturday.
The officer claims that Brown, who is black, assaulted him and tried to take his weapon. Witnesses say that Brown was surrendering when he was shot.
Police have provided few answers to questions of how many shots the officer fired and in what part of the body Brown was hit. Law enforcement agencies’ response to the protests and demonstrations has also drawn criticism for the use of heavy military-grade machinery, assault rifles, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Asked whether he believes that the police are being too heavy-handed, Knowles hedged.
“My concern would be that any over aggression might spark wider and greater protests and destruction,” he said, adding, “however, we have to apply the appropriate level of force to contain what’s going on.”
“While people might not like the tactics that are being used, absent those tactics, what’s going to happen? We know what’s going to happen, because it happened on Sunday night when they rampaged the entire city.”
Looters ripped off numerous stores, including a QuikTrip, AutoZone, Ross Dress for Less and a Wal-Mart. Shots rang out across the city and several fires were set. Thirty-two people were arrested.
Knowles said that the ramped-up law enforcement presence following the looting was a tactical decision and not a response to a direct plea from people in the town.
But, he said that citizens are generally supportive of the police and that he received flak for not doing enough to quash the looting.
“People of the city, black and white, are behind the police department in quelling this unrest,” Knowles said.
“Monday morning, a lot of people were very, very angry with me and others that we did not do more Sunday night.”
Two DOJ employees working for the Community Relations Service division are on the ground working with local groups, Knowles told TheDC. The federal agents are conducting training for the groups on best practices for participating in protests. The goal is to “help them to be more constructive,” Knowles said.
Knowles also gave his take on Al Sharpton’s appearance Tuesday at a press conference in Ferguson.
The mayor was pleased that Sharpton issued a call for peace. “We did not have any issues” with Sharpton’s appearance, Knowles said. “Obviously tonight not everybody heeded [his calls for peace].”
After Sunday’s looting, Monday and Tuesday night saw protesters but much less violence and police action. The situation escalated Wednesday as more officers and SWAT troopers lined the streets. Two reporters were arrested at a McDonald’s for filming officers and for not leaving the store quickly enough. (RELATED: Reporters ARRESTED In Ferguson, Site Of Police Shooting)
Numerous shots were reportedly fired later in the evening, and a group of young men were photographed attempting to light Molotov cocktails. Police responded with more tear gas. They also deployed what appeared to be long-range acoustic devices, or LRADs, to drive people off of the streets.
“I would hope that he would take a more active role in reaching out to these youth to stop this violence,” Knowles said of Sharpton. “Until that stops, we’re not going to get anywhere on these issues.”
Elected as mayor for the first time in 2011, Knowles has lived in Ferguson his entire life. He was re-elected in 2013 after running unopposed.
He makes $350 a month and has another full-time job, but he chuckled, “I haven’t been there in a couple of days.” (RELATED: Ferguson Police Chief: ‘Race Relations A Top Priority’)
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Knowles said of the racial turmoil gripping the town.
He recalled the racially divisive Rodney King verdict and the O.J. Simpson trial, which occurred while Knowles was in high school.
“We were in the lunchroom in the most difficult times, racially, in America, and never once did anything ever come to the surface,” Knowles said.
The community has changed in recent years, becoming more predominantly African-American, Knowles said, mostly due to suburban sprawl and a poor housing market which has led to more rental properties and government housing.
“It’s changed, but still the community has had a long-standing history of having a lot of African-American families, and it just worked,” Knowles said.
Until Saturday at least.
Brown was shot that day in a part of Ferguson that Knowles says is often disconnected from the rest of the town.
“Unfortunately, that part of the community oftentimes never gets to be incorporated into the greater Ferguson community,” he said.
“We’ve been talking about ways to try get the people to feel like they’re part of the community.”
Requests for comment submitted to the Department of Justice on the community training effort were not returned.
The agency provided similar support in Sanford, Fla., during demonstrations over the death of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by George Zimmerman.