President Obama did not respond as decisively to the Aug. 2014 police-involving shooting death of Michael Brown as activists would have liked because of a lack of “clarity of what happened” during the 18-year-old’s fatal encounter with Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, he said during an interview with GQ.
Obama was asked by former Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons about his differing responses to the Ferguson case and other high-profile race cases.
“Sometimes the circumstances won’t give you a clean statement,” Obama said.
“But Ferguson — the case itself was tougher because people didn’t know what was going on exactly,” he added.
Brown’s death touched off nationwide protests and some looting in Ferguson. It also gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has since grown into an influential force during the 2016 presidential race. But the facts surrounding Brown’s death were the source of bitter debate. Activists claimed that Brown was surrendering with his hands in the air when Wilson fatally shot him. Wilson’s supporters — citing forensic evidence — pointed out that Brown had assaulted the officer inside of his police cruiser and tried to steal his gun.
A grand jury declined to charge Wilson in the case, a decision which sparked even more protests and near-riots in Ferguson.
But the hazy circumstances at play in Ferguson did not exist in the June mass shooting at a black church in Charleston or in the Eric Garner case, Obama noted.
“What was different in Charleston was the clarity of what happened — that allowed, I think, everybody to be open to it,” Obama said, referring to the killing of nine black churchgoers in a Charleston church in June by white supremacist Dylann Roof.
Obama also contrasted the Brown case with that of Garner, a 43-year-old black man who died after being placed in a choke hold by a New York City police officer.
“In some ways the [Eric] Garner case in New York was clearer because you had on videotape exactly what had happened, and some of the subsequent cases have been more obvious,” Obama said.
While being choked, Garner was heard gasping for air and saying “I can’t breathe” during the encounter. He went unconscious and later died.
Obama explained his hesitation at speaking out in support of Brown in the Ferguson case, saying that “if I chime in with a strong opinion about what’s happened, not only do I stand to potentially damage subsequent law-enforcement cases, but immediately you get blowback and backlash that may make people less open to listening.”
Despite cautioning against a rush to judgement on individual cases, Obama did make reference in the interview to another high-profile incident for which he was accused of doing just that.
“When the Trayvon Martin case happened, I had an honest response as a father that I think resonated with a lot of people,” Obama said. Weeks after George Zimmerman fatally shot the 17-year-old Martin, Obama said “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
That comment came back to haunt Obama after it was revealed that Martin was assaulting Zimmerman when he was shot. Obama’s critics jumped on the rush to judgement and have used it against him ever since.