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Obama appeals for 'peace and calm' in Ferguson

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon about the situation in Ferguson, Mo., in Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., August 14, 2014. Deputy Chief of Staff Anita Breckenridge is at right. (Pete Souza/White House) President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon about the situation in Ferguson, Mo., in Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., August 14, 2014. Deputy Chief of Staff Anita Breckenridge is at right. (Pete Souza/White House)

President Barack Obama on Thursday appealed for "peace and calm" on the streets of a St. Louis suburb besieged by violent clashes between police and crowds protesting the shooting death of an unarmed teenager.

"I know emotions are raw right now in Ferguson and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened," Obama said in his first in-person remarks about the tense standoff in the Missouri suburb. "There are going to be different accounts of how this tragedy occurred. There are going to be differences in terms of what needs to happen going forward."

"But let's remember that we're all part of one American family, we are united in common values and that includes the belief in equality under the law, respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protests," he said. "A reverence for the dignity of every single man, woman and child among us; and the need for accountability when it comes to our government."

Obama said there was "no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights" and also criticized police for arresting two journalists just covering the racially charged clashes.

"Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority," Obama said. He spoke from Martha's Vineyard, the Massachusetts island where he is in the midst of a two-week vacation.

However, he also said no one should use the tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting.

The president has asked the Justice Department and FBI to investigate the incident. He said the federal agencies will conduct independent investigations in conjunction with local agencies.

"The Department of Justice is also consulting with local authorities about ways that they can maintain public safety without restricting the right of peaceful protest and while avoiding unnecessary escalation," Obama said. "I made clear to the attorney general that we should do what is necessary to help determine exactly what happened, and to see that justice is done."

The president said he had also spoken Thursday morning with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has faced criticism for not doing more to control the violence. Obama defended the Democratic governor calling him "a good man and a fine governor."

He said he and Nixon, a fellow Democrat, are working together to find a way to move forward.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said she expects Nixon will remove the St. Louis County police from the investigation.

There are varying accounts about what led to Brown's death.

Police say that after encountering Brown and another man on the street, one of the men assaulted an officer and struggled with him over his weapon. During the struggle, Brown was shot multiple times.

But a man who says he was with Brown during the shooting has told a much different account. Dorian Johnson says the officer grabbed his friend's neck, then tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. Johnson and another witness both say Brown was on the street with his hands raised when the officer fired at him repeatedly.

The teen's death has sparked both violent and peaceful protests.

Police have defended their use of tear gas and smoke bombs to repel protesters, saying they took those actions to disperse a large crowd after some people threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers.

Obama also said police shouldn't be arresting and bullying journalists who are doing their jobs. Reporters for the Washington Post and Huffington Post were taken into custody and briefly detailed Wednesday evening in the St. Louis suburb.

Among those arrested was St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who has been chronicling the protests on social media. He told a radio station (KMOX) that what he calls the "heavy-handed approach by police" is "escalating the situation." And he says "more people are going to get hurt if this keeps up."

Obama said he knows Americans are "deeply disturbed" by the images coming from the Heartland.

He also spoke in personal terms about Brown.

"We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances," he said. "He was 18 years old. His family will never hold Michael in their arms again. And when something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death, and how they are protecting the people in their communities."

The White House said Obama was briefed by Attorney General Eric Holder and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, both of whom are also on Martha's Vineyard.

Earlier in the week, the president issued a statement saying that Brown's death is stirring "strong passions," and he appealed for reflection.

"So now is the time for healing. Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson. Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done," Obama said.

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton is calling on the Justice Department to monitor the way police are handling the crisis in Ferguson, calling the situation "dangerous for everyone."

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