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Critics: Obama should step up and use his bully pulpit on Ferguson

President Obama's statement on events in Ferguson last week lasted roughly three minutes. Now some of the president's supporters are publicly saying that wasn't nearly long enough.

On Sunday, Michael Eric Dyson, a frequent MSNBC guest, articulated this view on Face the Nation. First, a few words about Dyson: he's no Cornel West -- he's often been a defender of Obama, including on air.

Not this week. Here's what he had to say about Obama's statements so far (emphasis mine):

And finally I yearn for more response from the White House. This president knows better than most what happens in poor communities that have been antagonized historically by the hostile relationship between black people and the police department.
It is not enough for him to come on national television and pretend there is a false moral equivalency between police people who are armed and black people who are vulnerable constantly to this. He needs to use his bully pulpit to step up and articulate this as a vision, not necessarily in terms of public policy alone, because Eric Holder is doing a tremendous job in filling in those gaps, but we need presidential leadership. He needs to step up to the plate and be responsible.

Dyson's statements represent the most high profile criticism of Obama's handling of Ferguson to date by an African American -- and by someone who has a lot of credibility on these issues.  It's not a statement the White House can so easily dismiss as "just hatin."

What's unclear -- yet -- is whether Dyson's criticism represents a shift in sentiment among other rank and file African Americans in this very racially charged situation.  On the other side, voices like Al Sharpton have said that it's unreasonable to expect that Obama get more involved, even rhetorically,  in a state and local matter during an investigation.  Others have argued that Obama would get major blowback if he says too much -- though it's fair to say blowback's part of the picture either way.

Obama did speak out in the wake of the trial of Robert Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, affirming the frustrations of many African Americans over what many perceived as a miscarriage of justice.  Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who joined Dyson on the panel, said that Obama has struck the right tone and he didn't want to go too far and get out ahead of an ongoing investigation.

A fair point.  But, argue some, what's the presidency for, if not to make some sort of order and to bring some sort of clarity to a situation that has left so many people wondering and worried about police brutality, the militarization of the police, race and racism.  Surely, they say, had this happened on George W. Bush's watch, calls for more leadership might have come from Democrats.

The Justice Department and the FBI have launched investigations into the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed teen who was shot six times by a police officer. The president is set to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder this afternoon at the White House, and the expectation is that he will at some point say something about the situation in Ferguson, which has deteriorated since he last spoke out.

Dyson offered a script for Obama, who he says has a unique responsibility and burden to speak out..."we need his leadership, his vision, his unique style."

The president has a responsibility to say, look, this is one of the key points we expect of him because of his unique experience. "As an African-American male I know what it means to not have an autopsy report released. I know what it means to have a young man besmirched posthumously with no relationship that we can tell between what that was about on that camera and how he died.

And I'm saying to you that if he could inform American society that, look, yes, we must keep them law, yes we must keep the peace, people must calm their passion, but let me explain to you why people might be hurt, why they might be angry and why they might be upset. That is his responsibility to tell that truth regardless of what those political fallouts will be.

Again, the expectation is that Obama will speak today or at some point after his briefing with Holder.  The question is what will he say, how heavy the recent critiques of his response will be on his mind -- and whether his remarks will be enough to quell some of the criticism from people like Dyson and others who are asking him to say more.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called for the National Guard to intervene in his city on Monday morning after protests grew violent yet again on Sunday night, despite a curfew the governor imposed on Saturday. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.



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