True story: Every once in a while, I’ll break out into “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. And invariably, it’s Paul Robeson who tries to come out. He doesn’t, but once you hear him singing that song, no other voice can fill it in your head.
For our night owl chat, some of the inestimable Paul Robeson.
Transcript of the President remarks on the situation in Ferguson
Earlier this afternoon, I spoke with Governor Nixon as well as Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill. I also met with Attorney General Eric Holder.
The Justice Department has opened an independent federal civil rights investigation into the death of Michael Brown. They are on the ground and along with the FBI, they are devoting substantial resources to that investigation.
The attorney general himself will be travelling to Ferguson on Wednesday to meet with the FBI agents and DOJ personnel conducting the federal criminal investigation and he will receive an update from them on their progress.
He will also be meeting with other leaders in the community who’s support is so critical to bringing about peace and calm in Ferguson.
Ronald Davis, the director of the DOJ’s Office of Community- oriented Policing Services, or COPS, is also traveling to Ferguson tomorrow to work with police officials on the ground. We’ve also had experts from the DOJ’s community relations service, working in Ferguson since the days after the shooting to foster conversations among the local stake holders and reduce tensions among the community.
So, let me close just saying a few words about the tensions there. We have all seen images of protesters and law enforcement in the streets. It’s clear that the vast majority of people are peacefully protesting. What’s also clear is that a small minority of individuals are not.
While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving into that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos. It undermines rather than advancing justice.
Let me also be clear that our constitutional rights to speak freely, to assemble, and to report in the press must be vigilantly safeguarded: especially in moments like these. There’s no excuse for excessive force by police or any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully.
Ours is a nation of laws: of citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them. So, to a community in Ferguson that is rightly hurting and looking for answers, let me call once again for us to seek some understanding rather than simply holler at each other. Let’s seek to heal rather than to wound each other.
As Americans, we’ve got to use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment. The potential of a young man and the sorrows of parents, the frustrations of a community, the ideals that we hold as one united American family.
I’ve said this before. In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear. And through initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper, I’m personally committed to changing both perception and reality. And already, we’re making some significant progress, as people of good will of all races are ready to chip in. But that requires that we build, and not tear down. And that requires we listen, and not just shout. That’s how we’re going to move forward together — by trying to unite each other and understand each other, and not simply divide ourselves from one another. We’re going to have to hold tight to those values in the days ahead. And that’s how we bring about justice, and that’s how we bring about peace.
QUESTION: The incident in Ferguson has led to a discussion about whether it’s proper to militarize the nation’s city police forces. And I’m wondering whether you wonder, or if you think that — you see that as a factor regarding the police response in Ferguson. And also, do you agree with the decision by the governor to send in the National Guard?
PRESIDENT: Well, I think one of the great things about the United States has been our ability to maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement. That helps preserve our civil liberties. That helps ensure that the military is accountable to civilian direction. And that has to be preserved.
After 9/11, I think understandably a lot of folks saw local communities that were ill-equipped for a potential catastrophic terrorist attack. And I think people in Congress, people of good will, decided we gotta make sure they get proper equipment to deal with threats that historically wouldn’t arise in local communities.
And some of that’s been useful. I mean, some law enforcement didn’t have radios that they could operate effectively in the midst of a disaster. Some communities needed to prepared if in fact there was a chemical attack, and they didn’t have hazmat suits.
Having said that, I think it’s probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they’re — what they’re purchasing is stuff that they actually need. Because, you know, there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.
And I think that there will be some bipartisan interest in reexamining some of those programs.
With respect to the National Guard, I think it’s important just to remember, this was a state-activated National Guard, so it’s under the charge of the governor. This is not something that we initiated at the federal level.
I spoke to Jay Nixon about this, expressed an interest in making sure that if in fact the National Guard is used, it is used in a limited and appropriate way. He described the support role that they’re gonna be providing to local law enforcement. And I’ll be watching over the next several days, to assess whether, in fact, it’s helping rather than hindering progress in Ferguson.
ANN COMPTON: Let me ask you. This is an interesting time in your presidency …. and one of the things that you have so emphasized in the last few months, the last year or so, is this reach-out to Brothers — My Brother’s Keeper and to a generation that doesn’t feel that it has much chance. Sending the attorney general to Ferguson is a step. Has anyone there asked you, or have you considered going yourself? Is there more that you personally can do, not just for Ferguson, but for communities that might also feel that kind of tension and see it erupt in the way it has in Ferguson?
PRESIDENT: Well, Ann, obviously, we’ve seen events in which there’s a big gulf between community perceptions and law enforcement perceptions around the country. This is not something new. It’s always tragic when it involves the death of someone so young. I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed. Because, although these are, you know, issues of local jurisdiction — you know, the DOJ works for me. And then when they’re conducting an investigation, I’ve got to make sure that I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other.
So, it’s hard for me to address a specific case, beyond making sure that it’s conducted in a way that isn’t (ph) transparent, where there’s accountability, where people can trust the process, hoping that, as a consequence of a fair and just process, you end up with a fair and just outcome.
But, as I think I’ve said in some past occasions, part of the ongoing challenge of perfecting our union has involved dealing with communities that feel left behind, who, as a consequence of tragic histories, often find themselves isolated, often find themselves without hope, without economic prospects.
You have young men of color in many communities who are more likely to end up in jail or in the criminal justice system than they are in a good job or in college.
And, you know, part of my job, that I can do, I think, without any potential conflicts, is to get at those root causes.
Now, that’s a big project. It’s one that we’ve been trying to carry out now for a couple of centuries. And we’ve made extraordinary progress, but we have not made enough progress.
And so, the idea behind something like My Brother’s Keeper is can we work with cities and communities and clergy and parents and young people themselves, all across the country, school superintendents, business, corporations, and can we find models that work, that move these young men on — on a better track?
Now part of that process is also looking at our criminal justice system to make sure that it is upholding the basic principle of everybody’s equal before the law.
And — and one of the things that we’ve looked at during the course of where we can make — during the course of investigating where we can make a difference is that there’re patterns that start early.
Young African American and Hispanic boys tend to get suspended from school at much higher rates than other kids, even when they’re in elementary school. They tend to have much more frequent interactions with the criminal justice system at an earlier age.
Sentencing may be different. How trials are conducted may be different.
And so, you know, one of the things that we’ve done is to include Department of Justice in this conversation under the banner of my brother’s keeper to see where can we start working with local communities to inculcate more trust, more confidence in the criminal justice system.
And — and I want to be — I want to be clear about this because sometimes I think there’s confusion around these issues and this dates back for — for decades.
There are young black men that commit crime. And — and — and we can argue about why that happens because of the poverty they were born into or the lack of opportunity or the school systems that failed them or what have you, but if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted because every community has an interest in public safety.
And if you go into the African American community or the Latino community, some of the folks who are most intent on making sure that criminals are dealt with are people that have been preyed upon by them.
So, this is not an argument that there isn’t real crime out there and that law enforcement doesn’t have a difficult job. And you know, that they — you know, they have to be honored and respected for the danger and difficulty of law enforcement. But what is also true is that given the history of this country, where we can make progress in building up more confidence, more trust, making sure that our criminal justice system is acutely aware of the possibilities of disparities in treatment, there are safeguards in place to avoid those disparities where, you know, training and assistance is provided to local law enforcement who, you know, may just need more information in order to avoid potential disparity. All those things can make a difference.
One of the things I was most proud of when I was in the state legislature, way back when I had no grey hair and none of you could pronounce my name was, you know, I passed legislation requiring videotaping of interrogations and confessions. And I passed legislation dealing with racial profiling in Illinois.
And in both cases, we worked with local law enforcement. And the argument was that you can do a better job as a law enforcement official if you have built up credibility and trust. And there’s some basic things that can be done to promote that kind of trust, and you know, in some cases, it’s just a lack of information. And we want to make sure that we get that information to law enforcement.
So, there are things that can be done to improve the situation, but short term, obviously, right now what we have to do is make sure that the cause of justice and fair administration of the law is being brought to bear in Ferguson. In order to do that, we’ve got to make sure that we are able to distinguish between peaceful protesters who may have some legitimate grievances, and maybe longstanding grievances, and those who are using this tragic death as an excuse to engage in criminal behavior and tossing Molotov cocktails or looting stores. And that is a small minority of folks, and it may not even be residents of Ferguson, but they are damaging the cause. They are not advancing it.