“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.”
After a year in which a series of high profile deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers reignited debate about law enforcement and justice in minority communities, President Obama invoked the unrest in Ferguson, Mo and New York City in tonight’s State of the Union address.
“That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward. That’s what the American people want,” Obama said. “That’s what they deserve.”
Protests and, at times, violent riots, broke out last August in Ferguson, Mo following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer. After months of national spotlight, a grand jury declined to charge the officer, Darren Wilson, prompting new riots and renewed protests across the country. Weeks later, a grand jury in New York declined to charge the NYPD officer who choked and killed Eric Garner whose final words “I can’t breathe” became a protest rallying cry.
Many have questioned how, as the first minority president of a nation whose domestic issues are often belied by race and ethnicity, Obama should best handle the tension in Ferguson and protests across the country. The president has publicly addressed Ferguson and the current tension between protesters and law enforcement at least half a dozen times. During those remarks, he has stuck to a similar script: avoiding remarks about the specifics of any individual cases, stressing that law enforcement officers make tremendous sacrifices, but insisting that the distrust between many communities and police is real and must be undone.
The comments tonight were the first time since 2010 that Obama directly referred to issues of racial civil rights during his State of the Union speech.
In that speech, his first State of the Union address, Obama invoked the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama that was a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement’s push for voting rights legislation. That march, during which police officers attacked protesters leaving many injured, was recently recreated in the movie “Selma,” and the White House announced earlier in the day Tuesday that Obama will visit Selma in March to mark the 50th anniversary.
“It’s tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable, that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain,” Obama said near the beginning of the 2010 speech. “These were the times that tested the courage of our convictions and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements, our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, as one people.”
Obama again addressed Selma in tonight’s speech, invoking the march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in calling for Congress to work to expand ballot access — which has been a major legislative focus for some Democrats since the Supreme Court gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act two years ago.
“We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it’s being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American,” Obama said tonight.