In the last few days, the country has been treated to a scene that is unprecedented in American history. A United States attorney general, the highest law enforcement officer in the land, has weighed in on a highly charged incident involving the killing of an unarmed Black teenager by a white officer.
Beyond that, Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to the scene of the incident, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Not only did he meet with local FBI and Justice Department personnel who are conducting an independent investigation into the death of young Michael Brown. Holder also met with local residents to hear their views of conditions in Ferguson. Most notably, he spent time with the parents of the slain teenager.
Holder also spent time with Ronald Johnson, the captain with the Missouri Highway Patrol who has commanded the police operation in Ferguson. “My man, you’re the man,” Holder said to Johnson when they met in a diner.
It is difficult to imagine Janet Reno, attorney general under Bill Clinton, undertaking such a mission. And it’s utterly unthinkable to imagine Edwin Meese, attorney general under Ronald Reagan, taking on such a journey.
But Holder is not your average attorney general.
“I am the attorney general of the United States,” the Bronx-born Holder told a group of local college students in St. Louis County. “But I am also a Black man.”
Holder seems to understand that law enforcement has many dimensions. And an important feature is dealing with discontent within communities where people feel marginalized and have had longstanding fissures of trust with local police.
Ferguson is a shining example of that. The city of 22,000 has 55 police officers of whom only three are African-American. Local residents say that being stopped by local police is exceedingly common and that a deeply antagonistic relationship had long existed between the police and residents of the city, which is two-thirds Black.
More than anything, Holder’s presence signals to Ferguson and people across the country that someone is listening to these typically voiceless Americans. There are deeply disturbing issues that affect the perception of fairness in the investigation, and local residents have little confidence in St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch, who should step aside for a special prosecutor.
The role of Holder, the nation’s first Black attorney general, has not only been unprecedented. It has also provided some comfort to the Michael Brown family, local residents of Ferguson and Americans everywhere that the federal government can feel the pain and the discontent of Americans who are largely ignored. Attorneys general over the course of history don’t meet with Black residents of racially torn cities. It is an encouraging sign not only by the man at the helm of the Justice Department, but of the president who appointed him.
Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan
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(Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images)