By Nick Carey
FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - Missouri's governor moved to ease tensions on Thursday after days of racially charged protests over the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, putting the African-American captain of the Highway Patrol in charge of security in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.
Captain Ron Johnson, who grew up in Ferguson, told reporters he would take a new approach after complaints that police have used heavy-handed tactics, arresting dozens of protesters and using teargas and pepper pellets to break up crowds.
Protesters filled the streets for a fifth night on Thursday in the mostly black suburb of Ferguson, and also assembled in other U.S cities following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last weekend.
The mood was largely peaceful, even festive at times, in sharp contrast to tense nightly standoffs between heavily armed riot police flanked by armored cars and angry protesters, as well as episodes of looting, vandalism and violence.
A crowd of some 2,000 peaceful demonstrators walked to a church hosting a prayer vigil, chanting 'Hands up, don't shoot' and waving signs as a single squad car blocked traffic to let them pass. More white marchers were among the protesters compared with previous days.
About 2,000 more people assembled near the site of Saturday's shooting, with broadcasters showing footage of Captain Johnson and a handful of officers walking among them.
In the forecourt of a gas station burned out during rioting, a cowboy was riding on a horse and a group of children were dancing on pavement covered in chalk drawings with the words: "Now the world knows your name, RIP Mike Mike."
U.S. President Barack Obama, seeking to defuse the situation, called on police to respect peaceful demonstrations.
"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 protesters or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights," he said in remarks broadcast from Edgartown, Massachusetts, near where he is vacationing with his family.
The protests have cast a spotlight on racial tensions in greater St. Louis, where civil rights groups have complained in the past that police racially profiled blacks, arrested a disproportionate number of blacks and had racist hiring practices.
Brown's shooting galvanized a national moment of silence and rallies in other U.S. cities.
In New York, a large crowd briefly overwhelmed a small police presence in Union Square park, forcing officers to scramble to close one of Manhattan's major thoroughfares.
In St. Louis, CNN footage showed hundreds of people peacefully assembled in the shadow of the iconic Gateway Arch, Brown's mother and other family members among them.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon praised Ferguson on Thursday for being a diverse, hard-working community, but he said, "lately it has looked a little bit more like a war zone, and that is unacceptable."
Police have pledged to do better but have also justified the tactics, saying they have responded to the threat of violence during protests.
"We are going to have a different approach," Johnson said at the news conference where Nixon announced his role in directing Ferguson's security. He said he would go to "ground zero" on Thursday evening, the area where Brown was killed and also where a convenience store was burned down on Sunday in riots.
Additionally, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that police had accepted an offer of technical assistance from the Justice Department "to help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force."
The Justice Department, the FBI and the St. Louis County prosecutor's office are all investigating Brown's death.
A law enforcement official told Reuters that Holder spoke with Michael Brown's parent's by phone as they and their lawyers visited the U.S. attorney's office in Missouri. Holder expressed his personal condolences for their son's death and promised the department would conduct a full, independent civil rights investigation, the official said.
HANDS IN THE AIR
Protesters have decried what they say is a lack of transparency by police investigating the incident - including the refusal to release the officer's name. And some have called for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCullough to be removed from the case.
Early on Thursday, a member of the Anonymous hacker activist collective tweeted the name of a person alleged to be the police officer who shot Brown. But police and other Anonymous tweeters said the activist had named the wrong person.
Police said threats from cyber activists were one reason they continued to be reluctant to release the officer's name. But Nixon said on Thursday that authorities should be expeditious about identifying the officer.
There is little clarity on what occurred during Saturday's incident. Police have said that Brown struggled with the officer who shot and killed him. The officer involved in the shooting was injured during the incident and was treated in a hospital for swelling on the side of his face, they said.
But some witnesses have said that Brown held up his hands and was surrendering when he was shot multiple times in the head and chest.
(Reporting by Nick Carey; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, David Bailey in Minneapolis, Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Jeff Mason in Edgartown, Mass., Curtis Skinner and Brendan McDermid in New York; Writing by Fiona Ortiz and Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Eric Beech and Ken Wills)