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VIEW PHOTOS OF PREVIOUS PROTESTS
FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — County police in riot gear and armored tanks gave way to state troopers walking side-by-side with thousands of peaceful protesters after nearly a week of unrest and mounting public tension in the St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teen was shot by a city police officer.
The dramatic shift Thursday came after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon assigned oversight of the protests to the state Highway Patrol, stripping local police from the St. Louis County Police Department of their authority after four days of clashes with furious crowds protesting the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
"All they did was look at us and shoot tear gas," said Pedro Smith, 41, who has participated in the nightly protests. "This is totally different. Now we're being treated with respect."
The more tolerant response came as President Barack Obama spoke publicly for the first time about Saturday's fatal shooting — and the subsequent violence that shocked the nation and threatened to tear apart Ferguson, a town of 21,000 that is nearly 70 percent black and 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 had smashed and burned businesses on Sunday and where police had repeatedly fired tear gas and smoke bombs.
But the latest protests had a light, almost jubilant atmosphere among the racially mixed crowd, more akin to a parade or block party. The streets were filled with music, free food and even laughter.
When darkness fell — the point at which previous protests have grown tense — no uniformed officers were in sight outside the burned-out QuikTrip convenience store that had become a flashpoint for standoffs between police and protesters.
"You can feel it. You can see it," protester Cleo Willis said of the change. "Now it's up to us to ride that feeling."
Nixon appointed Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black, to lead the police effort. Johnson, who grew up near Ferguson and commands a region that includes St. Louis County, marched alongside protesters Thursday, joined by other high-ranking brass from the Highway Patrol as well as the county department. The marchers also had a police escort.
"We're here to serve and protect," Johnson said. "We're not here to instill fear."
Several people stopped to shake hands and even hug Johnson and other officers, thanking them by name. At one point, Johnson spoke to several young men wearing red bandanas around their necks and faces. After the discussion, one of the men reached out and embraced him.
At the QuikTrip, children drew on the ground with chalk and people left messages about Brown.
Obama had appealed for "peace and calm" on the streets.
"I know emotions are raw right now in Ferguson, and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened," Obama said. "But let's remember that we're all part of one American family."
Residents in Ferguson have complained about the police response that began soon after Brown's shooting with the use of dogs for crowd control — a tactic that for some evoked civil-rights protests from a half-century ago. The county police had taken over the investigation of Brown's shooting and security at the request of the smaller city.
Nixon vowed that "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 was joined at a news conference by the white mayor of St. Louis and the region's four state representatives and the county executive, all of whom are black.
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