This afternoon, President Obama made his first public statement about the situation in Ferguson, MO (he had issued a written statement on Tuesday), but if anyone was hoping for something unexpected or far-reaching, they will be disappointed. And some certainly were dissatisfied, both with the content of Obama’s statement and his tone, that characteristic cadence he uses when reading something and trying not to inject it with too much emotion.
Here’s the heart of what he said:
Of course, it’s important to remember how this started. We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances. He was 18 years old, and 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. There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also 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 here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.
Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority. I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened. 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. That’s part of our democracy. But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family. We are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the law, basic respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protest, 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.
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.
It’s understandable to hear Obama talk this way. First of all, he was probably eager to avoid saying anything that would get anyone too riled up, particularly while the situation is ongoing. And since the Justice Department is participating in the investigation, it’s important for him as the head of the federal government not to express an opinion (yet) about what actually happened between Michael Brown and the officer who killed him, lest it appear that that investigation is anything but an objective one.
All that may be true, but it still won’t go down easy. We expect the president to be not just the head of the government but the leader of the nation and its people, which means we want him to give voice to our emotions. When so many of us watch this situation and say, “This is insane!” we want the president to come out and say the same thing. And when we have a situation where race is such a critical part of the equation, one can’t help but notice that not a word about that factor passed Obama’s lips.
So it may be left to other politicians not only to express the emotions so many people are feeling, but to do something else Obama didn’t do — ask how the events in Ferguson relate to policy, and how those policies might be changed.
Yesterday, I wrote a post asking about the response to Ferguson from libertarians, particularly libertarian politicians, to the situation in Ferguson. The post made a lot of libertarians very mad; amid the river of mindless venom directed at me in the last 24 hours, there were some critiques that actually had a reasonable point to make, about the way I had framed the question and had overgeneralized (if you’re interested, I addressed that this morning in this lengthy discussion of what one can learn from one’s critics). In response, some people asked, “So where are the liberal politicians?” It’s a good question.
After all, the situation in Ferguson is a vivid reminder of problems that liberals have been concerned about for a long time, most particularly the way black people are treated by the police in big cities and small towns all over America. This has been evident in both Michael Brown’s death and the way the police in Ferguson have reacted to protests by residents there, treating them not like American citizens who are upset and have every right to let the world know, but instead like they’re some kind of invading army that must be met with force. As many have pointed out, if you’re white, like Cliven Bundy’s supporters, you can literally point rifles at federal officials, and the response will be to politely ask whether this whole thing can’t be worked out, but if you’re black you can get tear gassed in your own front yard for holding your hands up and saying “Don’t shoot.”
And then there’s the related issue of the way in the last few years, first as a part of the War on Drugs and then under the banner of “homeland security,” police forces everywhere have been militarized to a frightening degree, which makes confrontations like this one far more likely to turn violent. When you have your police officers put on their military-style uniforms, strap on all their military-style gear, grab their military-style rifles, then pile into a military-style assault vehicle, they will arrive at their destination prepared to wage war. The people they’ll be seeing through their gas masks and riot shields won’t be citizens worthy of respect and consideration, they’ll be the enemy. Despite the efforts of some journalists, most particularly Radley Balko, the militarization of America’s law enforcement remains an issue that is not discussed nearly enough. But it is something that liberals have expressed plenty of concern over in the past, and now’s the opportunity to bring it to the fore.
So even if you could argue that we don’t gain very much by having every backbench member of Congress “weigh in” on the situation, all of that may confer on liberals an obligation to at least make their feelings known, if for no other reason than the fact that the more prominent people there are who do so, the greater the pressure to both resolve this situation and address the underlying problems it highlights. One politician whom I saw mentioned frequently when people were asking “What about the liberals?” is Elizabeth Warren; this morning, she made her first statement about it, a tweet that read, “This is America, not a war zone. The people of #Ferguson just want answers. We all want answers.”
Beyond “weighing in,” what more should we demand from members of Congress? For starters, they ought to be asked what kind of contributions national policy has made to this situation, and how that might be changed in the future. For example, one of the main reasons police forces have become so militarized is that the federal government has been giving them all manner of military equipment — not just guns, but even things like armored vehicles built for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to this recent ACLU report, an estimated 500 local police departments have even been given MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, which are designed to resist armor-piercing roadside bombs. Perhaps the madness of an ill-trained but overly-equipped police force in Ferguson confronting American citizens with that kind of equipment should prompt a reexamination of the transfer of all that military equipment. That’s something members of Congress can do something about, so we ought to press them to see if they plan to.
The greater a national constituency a politician has, the greater their influence and the more responsibility they have to offer something constructive. I was glad to see Rand Paul, who does have such a national constituency, offer this op-ed in Time Magazine this afternoon talking about the federal government’s role in arming local police forces way beyond their actual needs. There’s a great opportunity for him to join with his liberal colleagues to advocate legislation to address this situation. If Paul got together with someone like Warren, they could create a powerful coalition to actually accomplish something. For a whole variety of reasons, it may not be realistic to expect Barack Obama to be the primary vehicle for constructive change coming out of the Ferguson debacle in the short term. But maybe other politicians from both parties could step into that void.