FERGUSON, MO. — Attorney General Eric Holder flew to Ferguson, Mo., on Wednesday as the nation's chief law enforcement officer leading an investigation into a police shooting.
He also arrived as an African-American who said he understands the racial tensions that have fueled days of protests that have been marred by violence and mass arrests since the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
"I am the Attorney General of the United States, but I am also a black man," Holder told Ferguson residents at a community meeting. "I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding. Pulled over. ... 'Let me search your car' ... Go through the trunk of my car, look under the seats and all this kind of stuff. I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me."
Holder was here primarily for briefings on the Justice Department's ongoing investigation into possible civil rights violations related to the fatal shooting. He offered perhaps his most forceful and personal assessment yet of how the 18-year-old man's shooting has reignited a long history of racial "mistrust and mutual suspicion.''
"The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now,'' Holder told a group of community leaders assembled at a local community college. "The world is watching because the issues raised by the shooting of Michael Brown predate this incident. This is something that has a history to it, and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson."
Among the handful of St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley students who met with Holder was Molyric Welch, 27, who said her brother died following a encounter with Ferguson police in 2011.
Welch said the 31-year-old man, Jason Moore, died of cardiac arrest after officers allegedly used a stun gun during a disturbance call.
"A lot has happened here," she said. "He (Holder) promised things were going to change."
Bri Ehsan, 25, a criminal justice student, said the recent Ferguson shooting and its aftermath have been a "sad experience."
"We want to be part of change," Ehsan said. "This kind of thing should not be happening here."
Holder arrived as a local grand jury began hearing evidence to determine whether Wilson should be charged in the fatal shooting.
The Justice Department is conducting a parallel investigation into possible civil rights violations related to the shooting. In an extraordinary move, he also ordered a federal autopsy — the third forensic examination of the body, which was hit at least six times by gunfire.
Before a briefing on the investigation at local FBI headquarters, Holder said the Justice Department had assembled "very experienced" prosecutors and agents to pursue the federal civil rights inquiry.
"Our investigation is different," Holder said in a meeting room surrounded by top local federal officials, including FBI Agent in Charge William Woods and U. S. Attorney Rich Callahan.
"We're looking for possible violations of federal civil rights statutes," the attorney general said.
Holder also met with Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is coordinating law enforcement response to the protests. Asked whether he had confidence in the local investigation led by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, Johnson said: "General Holder, by being here, is a guarantee on that."
Johnson said he understood that the protests that have wracked Ferguson are not just about the shooting of Michael Brown.
"The community does not feel there is a connection," he said. "And that has to change."
At his last stop of the day, at the local U.S. attorney's office in downtown St. Louis, Holder met with the family of Michael Brown.
The 20-minute meeting was private. The family was not available for comment, but asked questions about the investigative process. Holder pledged that it would be a "fair and independent" inquiry.
On his day-long swing through the area, the attorney general was welcomed warmly at every stop.
At Drake's Place, a soul food restaurant located a few blocks from the scene of overnight
clashes, Holder went table to table offering words of encouragement to some stung by the fatal shooting and days of unrest.
"We don't want the world to know that's all that's going on here,'' said Viola Murphy, mayor of the nearby Cool Valley community.
"We can make it better," Holder told her.
Contributing: Paul Singer in McLean, Va.