County police in riot gear and armoured tanks gave way to state troopers walking side-by-side with thousands of protesters as the St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teen was shot by a city police officer overwhelmingly avoided violence Thursday after nearly a week of unrest and mounting public tension.
The dramatic shift 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 weekend 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 per cent 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 neighbourhood 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 instil 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.
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.
Police have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer's weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car. The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times.