Ferguson (United States) (AFP) - Retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis cut an arresting figure in his crisp uniform, dark blue cap -- and a sign demanding "the truth" about the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black youth.
Lewis turned heads and got people talking Thursday in his first appearance at the nightly protests in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson that followed the August 9 death there at the hands of a white policeman of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
"These people have been exploited and oppressed their entire lives, and now they have their own police department perhaps murdering one of their own," he told AFP around the corner from where Brown was fatally shot.
"And I came out to show solidarity with them," he said.
Lewis, who is white, served 24 years in the Philadelphia police force, most of them in the city's edgy north side, before retiring eight years ago and embracing political activism.
He made hometown headlines when he joined the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York in 2011 in full uniform -- infuriating Philadelphia's police commissioner, who ultimately acknowledged he couldn't stop Lewis from doing so.
In Ferguson, Lewis set himself up on the sidewalk outside Sam's Meat Market and More on West Florissant Avenue, scene of nightly protests against Brown's killing that have often turned violent.
Packing a cellphone in lieu of a Glock pistol on his hip, Lewis held a sign urging Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson to reveal "the truth" about how Brown came to be shot six times in broad daylight, soon after he allegedly stole a box of cigars from a liquor store.
Lewis was particularly incensed by the military-style armored vehicles and riot gear, including tear gas, rubber bullets and high-powered rifles, that police have deployed and used in Ferguson as the protests dragged on.
"Corporations are behind a lot of this," he said.
"Do you know why they have that military equipment here? Because corporations are going to make millions -- billions -- selling that equipment to police departments," he added.
"When I saw two (armored) personnel carriers come down the street, I just got chills -- and it's insulting to these people here."
Lewis went on to list other problems he sees in the American criminal justice system, from the privatization of prisons to police officers ramping up arrests in order to accumulate overtime.
"The whole system is corrupt," he said. "Black people know that because they've been victims of it all their lives... I'll put it this way: there are thousands of Fergusons."
- 'Culture of indifference' -
Another law officer turned activist in retirement who joined in the Ferguson protests was Matthew Fogg, a former chief deputy US marshal, from the US capital Washington.
An African American, he tracked down more than 300 dangerous fugitives over 32 years as a federal marshal, ran drug and firearm dragnets nationwide -- and in 1998 won a landmark lawsuit against the Justice Department over racial discrimination in the US Marshals Service.
"America's still pretty much a divided country when it comes down to race and the state of law enforcement for the African American is really sad," he told AFP.
He remembered being informed by superiors that certain neighborhoods across the United States were definite no-go operations for drug enforcement operations.
"They said, 'If you go in those areas, those people know judges, lawyers, politicians, and we're going to get a phone call and they're going to shut our operation down -- and there goes your overtime,'" he recalled.
The result, official figures show, is that African Americans, particularly young males, are far more likely to be arrested, tried and jailed for drugs and other felony charges than their non-black counterparts.
"Let me tell you something," Fogg said.
"I'm a law officer. I have empathy for law officers because I know what we go through on the street... but I also know there is a culture out there, a culture of indifference that keeps this sort of mentality in place."