Obama on Ferguson: There's a 'Gulf of Mistrust' Between People and Police

Charles Dharapak/AP

President Obama addressed on Monday the ongoing turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., where protests over the police shooting of unarmed Michael Brown have unfurled into their second week.

"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," said Obama, remarking on the dramatic confrontations between citizens and law enforcement, the worst of which came over the weekend. "While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving in to that anger by looting or carrying guns and even attacking the police only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos."

Speaking from the White House, the president announced that Attorney General Eric Holder will travel to Ferguson on Wednesday to meet with FBI agents and Justice Department personnel who are "conducting the federal criminal investigation." Holder, Obama said, will also meet with Ferguson community leaders.

"In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement," Obama said. "In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear."

Obama, in discussing the racial tensions that have boiled to the surface in Ferguson, pointed to the My Brother's Keeper initiative his administration launched earlier this year, which is designed to address unique struggles facing boys and young men of color.

"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 ... without any potential conflicts is to get at those root causes," he said. "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."

Last week, Holder instructed the Justice Department's civil-rights division to launch an investigation into Brown's death. Obama met with Holder earlier in the day to debrief about the ongoing situation in Ferguson, where protests again took a violent turn over the weekend. Three people were injured and and seven arrested and charged with failure to disperse.

Asked whether he is considering going to Ferguson himself, Obama said that he has to "make sure that I don't look like I'm putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other" in regard to the Justice Department's investigation.

On Monday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon deployed the state National Guard to Ferguson and lifted a citywide curfew imposed on Saturday and Sunday night.

Obama's comments Monday mark the second time he has publicly spoken about the situation in Ferguson, which remains in a state of upheaval following the fatal shooting of Brown, a black 18-year-old resident, by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, on Aug. 9.

In a press conference on Thursday from Martha's Vineyard, Obama said he had directed the FBI to open an independent investigation of Brown's death. An autopsy performed at the request of Brown's family found on Sunday that Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head, and that there was no evidence of a physical struggle between Brown and Wilson.

Some Ferguson demonstrators and other observers have criticized Obama for not directly acknowledging the racial tensions that have erupted in Ferguson, a community that is predominantly black but only has three black officers on its 53-member local police force. Obama has been challenged for not speaking more openly about race in America throughout his presidency, with a notable exception following George Zimmerman's not-guilty verdict last summer following the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

Missouri officials have also drawn criticism for avoiding talk of the potential role of race in the shooting during several press conferences last week, despite repeated questions from reporters and protesters alike. In an interview Sunday on CNN's State of the Union, host Candy Crowley pressed Nixon on the topic.

"Across the country, these are deep wounds. When you scratch them again, they hurt, whether it's in Ferguson, Missouri, or other parts of the country," he said. "We know there's a long history of challenges in these areas, and our hope is that with the help of the people here, that we can be an example of getting justice and getting peace and using that to move forward."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec