The fourth night of skirmishes between police and residents in Ferguson, Mo., prompted President Obama on Thursday to make his first public statements on the shooting of an unarmed teenager that has quickly evolved into a national debate over justice in African American communities.
Appearing before reporters at a school in Martha's Vineyard, where he has been vacationing, Obama sought to strike a balance to calm tensions in the St. Louis suburb, while also promising a thorough investigation into the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last Saturday.
"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."
His remarks came after another night of violence in the Ferguson community Wednesday. Police fired tear gas at protesters and two reporters, including one from The Washington Post, were arrested while covering the events.
A White House official told reporters that Obama, who had been attending a birthday party for a friend on Martha's Vineyard, was briefed on the developments late Wednesday night by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
The tense and chaotic atmosphere in Ferguson made for an awkward contrast to the scene in the Vineyard, where Obama dined on “surf and turf and pasta,” while mingling with guests that included Bill and Hillary Clinton at the party for Ann Jordan, wife of longtime Clinton confidante Vernon Jordan, according to a White House readout.
In the five days since Brown was shot dead by a police officer on Saturday -- the day Obama began his scheduled two-week vacation -- the administration has tried to calibrate a response. Holder pledged Monday -- and Obama reiterated Thursday -- that the Justice Department would assist local investigators in undertaking a “fulsome review.” He said that “aggressively pursuing investigations such as this is critical for preserving trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
On Tuesday, Obama issued a one-paragraph written statement calling Brown’s death “heartbreaking” but urging the community in Ferguson and across the nation to “remember this young man through reflection and understanding. We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
The ongoing unrest convinced Obama and his advisers to more directly address the community’s fraying trust in its police department. Images of Ferguson police in full riot gear and armed with tear gas and rubber bullets while confronting residents in street clothes have contributed to deep uncertainty about the ability of the local leadership, or state officials, to restore calm and regain trust in the community.
Obama said Thursday he had spoken with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) and "expressed my concern over the violent turn events had taken on the ground."
For the nation’s first African American president, the racial dynamics -- most of the Ferguson leadership and police are white and a majority of residents, including Brown, are black — adds another layer of complexity. 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.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida youth shot and killed by a man on neighborhood watch patrol, in 2012, Obama made brief remarks within weeks, saying that if he had a son he would “look like Trayvon.” But the president held off on a deeper discussion of the case until after the verdict more than a year later, when he held an impromptu news conference at the White House and spoke on the case for 20 minutes.
In his remarks back then, Obama called for an end to racial profiling and said that he could have been in Martin’s position 35 years earlier.
“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 this earlier week.
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. But if he has a sense it would further deepen the divide that exists, he will not... The role of the president is not only to express concern, but to point the way forward. Until the facts are sorted out, it’s difficult to define what the way forward is.”
Early in his tenure, Obama faced a public backlash when he waded quickly into a racially charged 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, Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley, to the White House for beers.
In Ferguson, civil rights leaders said they expected Obama to weigh in on the matter. NAACP president Cornell William Brooks, who traveled to Ferguson on Monday, attended a community meeting with hundreds of residents. Brooks said White House officials had contacted him before he left Washington and again late Monday night after he had arrived in Ferguson. “They were concerned about what was going on on the ground, how secure was the community itself,” Brooks said Tuesday, declining to name which officials he spoke with at the White House.
Obama, Brooks said, has demonstrated his ability to act as the “consoler in chief” in the wake of natural disasters and so it followed that “it would be entirely appropriate for him...to speak to the concerns and apprehension of this community.”
Brooks cautioned that the president’s involvement should not be considered a one-off statement of empathy, but rather the start of a national discussion over the pervasive persecution and harassment of black residents by law enforcement in their own communities. “It’s entirely appropriate, 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,” Brooks said.
After the Martin verdict, Obama spoke of the need for rethinking law enforcement techniques, though he did not roll out any new federal efforts. This year, the White House rolled out a program called “My Brother’s Keeper” aimed at counseling African American young men and helping keep them in school and out of prison.
Benjamin Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, said in an interview this week that the president is well-versed on the issues of racial profiling. Jealous said he first heard Obama’s name when Obama helped 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.”