Attorney General Eric Holder told Ferguson, Mo., residents on Wednesday that he could relate to their suspicion of police officers, hoping to calm tensions in the St. Louis suburb rocked by repeated clashes between cops and protesters.
“I understand that mistrust,” Holder said at a local community college, according to excerpts of his remarks. “I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man. I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding.”
President Obama dispatched Holder to Ferguson to meet with civil rights leaders, students, police officers and other members of the Missouri community affected by the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. He also met in private with Brown's parents.
His appearances on Wednesday amounted mostly to a listening tour, and he did not hold a public press conference.
Holder is looking to satisfy Ferguson residents long suspicious of local police while not alienating law enforcement agencies who say they are simply trying to maintain order.
However, the attorney general said the events in Ferguson were indicative of problems that existed well before police officer Darren Wilson shot Brown.
“The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now,” Holder said. “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.”
Holder’s role in Ferguson is somewhat limited in that his office can’t pursue murder charges against Wilson — that’s a local matter.
“Our investigation is different,” Holder said in a separate meeting with local officials. “We’re looking for possible violations of federal civil rights statutes.”
Supporters of Wilson, the police officer, say he acted in self-defense. Protesters counter that his actions were racially motivated.
For his part, Holder framed his department’s civil rights focus as a defining factor in how the history books will view Obama.
“We have a very active civil rights division,” he said. “As they write about the legacy of the Obama administration, a lot of it is going to be about what the civil rights division has done."
This article was originally posted at 5:45 p.m. and has since been updated.