Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. left Washington early Wednesday for a day of meetings in Ferguson, Mo., as the highest-ranking Obama administration official to visit the tension-filled community where nightly protests have led to dozens of arrests.
Holder was scheduled to meet with law enforcement officials, elected leaders and community groups during his time in the St. Louis suburb. With President Obama in Martha’s Vineyard for another week of vacation, Holder has become the point man for the administration’s efforts to help restore calm on the streets in Ferguson and conduct an independent civil rights investigation into the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
The administration has been working behind the scenes to assure leading civil rights groups that it is determined to see justice achieved as Obama — who has been criticized by some African American leaders for not visiting Ferguson himself — seeks to preserve his support in the black community with his handling of the racially charged case.
Holder and senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett briefed 1,000 African American leaders, community organizers and civil rights groups in private conference calls this week, White House aides said. The strategy was aimed at enlisting the groups to “help keep the situation calm and focused,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversations.
In an open letter published on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Web site Tuesday, Holder said his goal was to “ensure that this tragedy can give rise to new understanding — and robust action — aimed at bridging persistent gaps between law enforcement officials and the communities we serve.”
The efforts of Holder and Jarrett, Obama’s two highest-ranking African American advisers, have shielded the president from criticism from other prominent black leaders. Professors Michael Eric Dyson and Charles Ogletree, longtime Obama supporters, said Tuesday on MSNBC that Obama had not spoken forcefully enough to the personal pain of African Americans in Ferguson.
“People have been dying left and right; it’s time for this president, who I love dearly, to speak up and say what’s in his mind and his heart — that we can’t allow any more black boys, 18 years old and younger, to be shot and killed by police,” said Ogletree, who has known Obama since his days at Harvard Law School.
Brown, a black teenager, was shot multiple times by a white police officer under circumstances that have not been fully disclosed by local law enforcement officials, prompting sustained protests over the past 11 days. At the White House on Monday, Obama said he had to be mindful not to prejudge the facts in a case that is still being investigated so that “I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales.”
Tanya Clay House, public policy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said she came away from the White House telephone briefing convinced that the administration is committed to pursuing answers in the Brown case.
“I do not necessarily feel there is criticism to be had against the president,” she said. “He’s deployed who needs to be deployed. The issue is to ensure justice occurs in Ferguson.”
Holder and Jarrett were joined on the calls by Molly Moran, acting director of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. They said that FBI agents had conducted more than 200 interviews and personnel from the federal civil rights division and the office of community-
oriented policing also are in Ferguson.
“Rest assured, we’re working tirelessly,” Holder said on one of the calls, according to people who participated. “We have the utmost confidence in the independence and integrity of our investigators.”
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks, who has been in frequent touch with the White House, said that “having the attorney general visit the site of an ongoing investigation is extra rare. . . . The U.S. government’s pursuit of justice for this family is huge.”
The civil rights groups said they would continue to press the Obama administration to implement broader reforms aimed at ending racial profiling among law enforcement officers and scaling back the militarization of local police forces.
“It’s really tremendously important that the attorney general is making the trip tomorrow,” said Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. But she added that there is concern that once the media moment passes in Ferguson, the Justice Department might feel “less of a sense of urgency.”
Marc H. Morial, who heads the National Urban League, praised Holder for launching a parallel investigation, but said that Obama will be key to addressing those lingering problems.
“He can’t just look the other way and say this is a blip on the screen. This is symptomatic,” said Morial, who was on one of the White House conference calls.
Pamela Meanes, president of the National Bar Association and a lawyer in St. Louis, said she sympathized with the difficult position Obama faces in dealing with the emotions and racial complexities of the Brown shooting.
“If he was too passionate, then individuals would say he’s bothering the investigation,” said Meanes, who also listened to one of the calls. “If his tone was as it was yesterday, then individuals say he’s not passionate enough. I think the real issue is whether or not what he said touched the people of Ferguson, and I think he did.”
Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.