President Barack Obama called for calm in Ferguson in an Aug. 18 afternoon statement, and announced that Attorney General Eric Holder would visit the town on Wednesday a part of a new civil rights investigation.
The dispute began with the Aug. 9 police shooting of an 18-year-old African-American, Michael Brown, shortly after he robbed a convenience store.
The shooting has been followed by several nights of rioting and looting, by the withdrawal and then the return of paramilitary policing, and by the arrival of various political entrepreneurs, including Rev. Al Sharpton.
“There is no excuse for excessive force by police or any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully,” he said about the police actions.
“What is also clear is that a small minority of individuals are … giving in to that anger by looting or by carrying guns,” he said. “That undermines rather than advances justice.”
He recognized worries about the high crime-rate among African-Americans, saying “there are young black men that commit crime. … If they commit a crime, they need to be prosecuted because every community has no interest in public safety.”
But then he immediately suggested that African-Americans’ crimes were “a consequence of tragic histories … [because African-Americans youths] find themselves isolated, without hope, without economic prospects.”
“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,” he said.
“Part of that process is also looking at our criminal justice system to make sure that it is upholding the basic principle of everybody is equal before the law,” he said.
His administration has published data showing that young black men between the ages of 14 and 24 are only one percent of the population, but commit 27 percent of murders.
He declared his neutrality, pending completion of the investigations. “I have to be very careful about not prejudging. … The [Department of Justice] works for me and 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,” he said.
But he also announced his sympathy for the protestors, and indicated his opposition to the use of the National Guard to suppress rioting. “I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown,” he said.
“I spoke to [Missouri Gov.] Jay Nixon about [the use of the Guard], expressed an interest in making sure that if, in fact, a National Guard is used it is used in a limited and appropriate way,” he said. But, he added, “I’ll be watching over the next several days to assess whether it’s helping rather than hindering progress in Ferguson.”
“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,” he said. “In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.”
This story has been updated.