FERGUSON, Mo."”The city is not the same as it was 24 hours ago.
There are no armored vehicles patrolling the streets of Ferguson Thursday night. Cars are free to travel along West Florissant Avenue, once blocked by police, and drivers pound on the horn as they pass. There's no hint of tear gas, just the scent of tobacco smoke in the warm summer air.
A few hours ago, Missouri officials put another police force in command. The decision signaled a coordinated movement to restore calm after several days of protests. Out is the St. Louis County Police Department, whose crowd-control methods"”tear gas, rubber bullets, officers in combat gear threatening arrest"”were characterized as heavy-handed. In is the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
It is too early to tell whether Ferguson has turned a corner since the protests began on Sunday, in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old who was unarmed, by a white police officer Saturday afternoon. But the atmosphere is indeed different than before.
Only about four police officers from the city of St. Louis (a department not associated with St. Louis County Police) were in the neighborhood near West Florissant Avenue, talking to protesters. They were not wearing bullet-proof vests. About a dozen people dressed in black and wearing patches with a Black Panther logo were directing traffic.
"Where were [the Panthers] yesterday?" asked Eric Price, who chatted with police. He brought his 71 year-old mother, Phyllis Price, with him to the protest. It's her birthday, and she wanted to celebrate it here with hundreds of people rallying in front of what once was a Quiktrip convenience store, set aflame on Sunday night.
Now, on Thursday night, "it feels good. It feels relaxed," Phyllis said. Phyllis grew up a few blocks away and remembers the days when she had to ride in the back of the public bus because she is black. She hopes Brown's death will make a difference in the communities north of St. Louis, which are known as NADs: "Not After Dark." That's when police will pull over anyone just because they're black, she says.
"I hope this makes more than a difference," she said. "A change."
The day before, "it was like a standoff. It was us against them," said Rena Perry, 33, standing near the Quiktrip. "Today, it's totally different. It's much better."
Why? "Because they're not standing over there with rifles and guns, ready to shoot," the Berkeley, Mo. resident said, referring to police officers at the scene.
Protesters say they feel able to demonstrate in the streets because they believe the risk of arrest or violence has decreased along with police presence. Still, some locals say they are worried that the situation could take a turn for the worse overnight. People remain angry over Brown's death, and chants continue. "No justice, no peace." "Hands up, don't shoot."
Hours earlier, President Obama had called for calm in Ferguson. "There's ... no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights," the president said.
The streets of Ferguson, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Thursday afternoon, had begun to resemble a "war zone," and that was "unacceptable."
"We're working with Highway Patrol to make sure everything you see here tonight is calm and peaceful," said St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson on Thursday night.
Part of that, it appears, involves taking seflies with protesters. Here's Dotson smiling for the camera:
Other protesters were not willing to forget the week's confrontations with police. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar was immediately surrounded when he stepped out of a Missouri State Highway Patrol SUV with Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson. People demanded answers as the pair walked down West Florissant Avenue.
"We were being peaceful. You put the dogs on us. You took the media away. You told them to turn their cameras off," Deandra Jackson yelled at Belmar. "You tell us we can't walk on public property. What was that all about?"
He didn't answer.
"What's his name?" The protesters chanted in unison as they surrounded the officers. Johnson said officials would release the name on Friday. CNN reported late Thursday night that the officer would be publicly identified Friday.
"We came out here because we thought you were being peaceful," he said before he and Belmar got into the car a few minutes later and drove away.