President Obama has taken a brief respite from his vacation to return to Washington for briefings on Iraq and Ferguson, Missouri. On Monday morning, he met with Attorney General Eric Holder and also spoke with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill to discuss unfolding events in the Missouri town.
Obama had harsh words for the "small minority" responsible for the violence and looting that took place over the weekend. He said that he understands the passion and anger prompted by the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, but said that such behavior "only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos" and undermines justice. He also said that the constitutional rights to speak freely, peacefully protest and to report on it in the press must be "vigilantly safeguarded" and condemned excessive force by police.
"In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear," Obama said, adding that he hopes to change both perception and reality through programs like his My Brother's Keeper initiative. "But that requires that we build and not tear down. And that requires that we listen and not just shout. That's how we're going to move forward together: by trying to unite each other and understand each other and not simply divide ourselves from one another."
The president announced that Holder will travel to Ferguson on Wednesday to meet with FBI agents and officials who are conducting a civil rights investigation into Michael Brown's shooting death. He also will meet with community leaders, "whose support is so critical to bringing about peace and calm" there. On Tuesday, Ronald Davis, who heads DOJ's Community Oriented Policing Services, will travel to Ferguson to work with police officials on the ground.
Despite the president's call for peace and calm last Thursday, chaos has escalated in Ferguson, prompting Nixon to declare a state of emergency and call in the National Guard. Obama said he would assess the National Guard's impact to determine whether it is helping or hindering the situation.
Since taking office as the nation's first African-American president, race and race relations have served as landmines around which Obama treads carefully. Black leaders were both appreciative of and surprised when he delivered heartfelt and very personal remarks in response to the George Zimmerman verdict and spoke very frankly about the still very sensitive subject. So far that hasn't been the case with Michael Brown and some critics are asking whether the president is personally doing enough.
One of those critics is professor and frequent MSNBC guest Michael Eric Dyson, who is an ardent supporter of the president. Speaking on this week's edition of Face the Nation, Dyson called on Obama to have a bigger voice in the Ferguson crisis.
"I yearn for more response from the White House. This president knows better than most what happens in poor communities that have been antagonized historically by the hostile relationship between black people and the police department. It is not enough for him to come on national television and pretend there is a false moral equivalency between police people who are armed and black people who are vulnerable constantly to this," Dyson said. "He needs to use his bully pulpit to step up and articulate this as a vision, not necessarily in terms of public policy alone, because Eric Holder is doing a tremendous job in filling in those gaps, but we need presidential leadership. He needs to step up to the plate and be responsible."
When asked at Monday's press conference if there is more that he could do personally, Obama defended his cautious approach.
"I have to be very careful about not pre-judging these events before investigations are completed because although these are, you know, issues of local jurisdiction, you know, the DOJ works for me, and when they’re conducting an investigation, I’ve got to make sure that I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other," he said.
His way of helping young men of color, some of whom for whatever reason are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system instead of college or a good job, he said, is through My Brother's Keeper and other similar efforts to get them on a better track.
"Part of my job that I can do I think without any potential conflicts is to get at those root causes," he said, but also acknowledged the disparate treatment African-American and Latino boys receive as early as elementary school.
And, as he has in previous remarks about Ferguson, Obama noted the "danger and difficulty of law enforcement," which he said must be respected.
"But what is also true is that given the history of this country, where we can make progress in building up more confidence, more trust, making sure that our criminal justice system is acutely aware of the possibilities of disparities in treatment, there are safeguards in place to avoid those disparities, where, you know, training and assistance is provided to local law enforcement who, you know, may just need more information in order to avoid potential disparity. All those things can make a difference," the president said.
BET Networks will air a one-hour news special called Justice for Ferguson: The Shooting of Michael Brown. Hosted by Marc Lamont Hill and Keke Palmer, the special will focus on Brown's death and the protests that followed in Ferguson, Missouri. Stay tuned to BET.com/michaelbrown for more information.
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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