President Obama on Thursday stepped into the racially charged conflict in Ferguson, Mo., making his first extended public statement on the shooting of an unarmed teenager — an incident that has quickly evolved into a national debate over justice in African American communities.
Obama, who is on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, interrupted a day of personal activities with an impromptu appearance before reporters at an elementary school. He sought to strike a balance between calming tensions and promising a thorough investigation into the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last weekend.
“Now is the time for healing,” said Obama, dressed in a navy blazer and checkered dress shirt without a tie. “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.”
The president’s remarks came as his administration faced mounting pressure from civil rights leaders to help restore public trust in Ferguson, amid images of police in military-style riot gear clashing with residents in street clothes. In the five days since Brown was shot dead by a police officer Saturday, Obama and his advisers have attempted to calibrate a response to the fast-moving but still murky set of events.
For the nation’s first African American president, circumstances have presented additional complexities because most of Ferguson’s law enforcement authorities are white and most protesters are black. Obama, at times, has spoken on a deeply personal level about his own feelings on race, but he also has been criticized by black leaders for not speaking out quickly or forcefully enough.
Obama and his aides are also mindful of the stark contrast between his posh vacation setting on the island and the gritty scenes in Ferguson. New reports late Wednesday evening of police firing tear gas at protesters and arresting two reporters came as Obama dined on “surf and turf and pasta” while mingling with Bill and Hillary Clinton at the birthday party of a mutual friend, according to the White House.
The president, briefed by senior aides late Wednesday night, believed that “his voice could help quell the violent reaction,” said a high-ranking administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation. When Obama first learned of Brown’s death, he felt “a very deep sense of loss” on a “very personal level from one parent to another,” the aide said.
Even as he addressed the situation in Ferguson, however, Obama steered clear of directly addressing the racial tensions, instead emphasizing the “heartbreaking and tragic circumstances” of Brown’s death and the need for legal equity. He chided those in the community who exploited the subsequent peaceful protests to engage in looting, and he reprimanded law enforcement officers who used excessive force in their response.
“Let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family,” the president said. “We are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the law.”
Some high-profile African American supporters said Obama didn’t go far enough. In his statement after the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman — accused of shooting unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 — Obama talked about the pain among many African Americans, who looked at that case “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
Anthea Butler, a religion and black studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said of Obama’s remarks on Ferguson — which came after he provided an update on U.S. military operations in Iraq — that “people expected a lot more, and they weren’t impressed.”
She added that the president “didn’t address the issue. Part of it is that this is really painful and we have seen him step out in painful events and have a lot of compassion. This is a particular pain that comes from racism.”
Obama’s words instead echoed his administration’s response earlier in the week, when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that the Justice Department would assist investigators in undertaking a “fulsome review” of Brown’s death.
For the president, the issue of race has long presented an opportunity and a risk.
In the Zimmerman case, Obama made brief remarks within weeks of the shooting, saying that if he had a son, he would “look like Trayvon.” But the president held off on a deeper discussion until after the verdict more than a year later, when he held an impromptu news conference and called for an end to racial profiling.
“Based on my experience with the president, he comes to a situation like this and doesn’t look at it as a politician. He tends to analyze it as a father,” Joshua DuBois, a former Obama aide who oversaw faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, said in an interview.
But DuBois added that Obama’s instinct is to “speak to issues where he thinks his voice can help achieve a practical result, if he thinks his remarks can bring healing to that family and community.”
Early in his tenure, Obama faced a public backlash when he waded quickly into a dispute in Cambridge, Mass., after Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black, was arrested by a white officer and charged with disorderly conduct. Obama initially said police “acted stupidly” after the charges were dropped, but the president later regretted his words and invited Gates and the officer to the White House for beers.
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks, who traveled to Ferguson on Monday, said he hoped that Obama’s involvement would spark a national dialogue over the persecution and harassment of black residents by police in their own communities.
“It’s entirely appropriate,” Brooks said, “given that the president has often talked about the fierce urgency of now, as I stand on the street talking to young people with tears running down their faces, asking what is somebody going to do about this — this feels like fierce urgency of now.”
This year, the White House rolled out a program called My Brother’s Keeper aimed at counseling young African American men. The administration has also sought to shorten mandatory sentences for lesser drug offenses.
Benjamin Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, recalled Obama’s efforts to help win passage of a bill during his time in the Illinois state legislature to require police agencies to record the race of everyone pulled over in a traffic stop.
“For a lot of people who voted for this president, improving the quality of justice for all of us was central to our early and long motivations,” Jealous said. “I think he understands that.”
Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.