Witnesses in Ferguson describe intimidation, clashes with police

After four nights of violence in Ferguson, Missouri -- and with no end in sight-- the president and the governor took action Thursday. Governor Jay Nixon put state police in charge of security in the St. Louis suburb where local police have clashed with demonstrators protesting the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.

President Obama interrupted his vacation to call for calm. He says there is blame for the violence on both sides.

"There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting," Obama said. "There's also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights." CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman has more.

Police in Ferguson say they won't stop a peaceful protest. That's exactly what Liz Peinado says she was doing when heavily armed police rolled in on armored vehicles last night.

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Liz Peinado

"I'm 115 pounds, 4'11 sitting on the floor with my peace sign and being yelled at by large men," she said, describing an officer pointing a gun at her head."He was grabbing me pretty tight and I said 'sir I'm a really tiny woman. You don't have to grab me that hard.' "

Tear gas and smoke bombs were used to scatter protesters. Police say someone threw objects including molotov cocktails.

In one cell phone video, you can see a police officer aiming his weapon at demonstrators. Many of the officers had semi automatic rifles. Those who did not quickly respond to commands -- including journalists -- were taken into custody. Baptist minister Dinah Tatman says she was goaded by one officer.

"He wanted to taunt me to resist and when I said you don't know who I am, he took my arms and yanked. 'Oh are you trying to resist,'" Tatman said the officer quipped. "I said don't do it."

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Dinah Tatman
CBS News

Earlier, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he was "deeply concerned" over acts of violence by the public and heavy-handedness by police.

"The law enforcement response to these demonstrations must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them," he said.

Tensions with the press were also heightened when media itself became part of the story.

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowry was recharging his cell phone and working on his laptop at a Ferguson, Mo., McDonald's Wednesday night when police in riot gear approached him and told him to leave the restaurant.

Lowry, according to an account published Thursday morning in the Post, was told to stop recording the officer who repeatedly tells him, "Let's go."

Lowry writes, "As I turned, my backpack, which was slung over one shoulder, began to slip. I said, "Officers, let me just gather my bag." As I did, one of them said, "Okay, let's take him."

After 4 nights of unrest -- in which one person was critically wounded -- Missouri governor Jay Nixon promised "a change in tone." He put State Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson to command the operation.

"I grew up here and this is currently my community and my home," Johnson said at a press conference. "Therefore it means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence, fuse the tension and build trust."

Johnson said that he would be in Ferguson Thursday night and meet people at the Quik Trip gas station that was burned by vandals days ago and has now become a "ground zero" of sorts in the community.

The investigation into Michael Brown's death could take two more weeks. Ferguson police say Brown tried to grab the gun of the unidentified white officer. But two witnesses say Brown was unarmed and had his hands up when he was shot multiple times. Tiffany Mitchell says she saw Brown outside the police car.

"The kid breaks away and he starts running away from the cop," said Mitchell. "The cop follows him and kept shooting and the kid's body jerked as if he was hit."

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Tiffany Mitchell
CBS News

Michael Brown's body has been returned to his family. They are waiting for the official autopsy and we have learned they are also planning to have an independent autopsy done.

The FBI is conducting an independent investigation of the shooting.

Meanwhile Capitol Hill legislators are also responding to the situation in Ferguson.

Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson, is planning to introduce legislature that would restrict a Defense Department program which give free surplus military equipment to local law enforcement.

"Militarizing America's main streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent," Johnson told the Associated Press.

In other developments, the Twitter account of hacker group Anonymous was suspended Thursday. The account had been used to post the what the group claimed was the name and other personal information of the police officer involved in the weekend shooting.

Twitter's code of conduct strictly forbids the publication of private and confidential information without permission. After the account was suspended, a secondary account announced that the group won't be releasing any more information, for now.

One of the primary sticking points with protesters in Ferguson was a demand to release the name of the officer who shot and killed Brown.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.

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