Obama calls for calm in Ferguson: Will that help?

In previous high-profile news events where race was a major factor, President Obama spoke out somewhat more forcefully. There could be several reasons he appeared to handle the Ferguson incident differently.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama pauses as he speaks about the situations in Iraq and in Ferguson, Mo., Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, in Edgartown, Mass., during his family vacation on Martha's Vineyard.

President Obama on Thursday took a break from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation to call for “peace and calm” in Ferguson, Mo., the St. Louis suburb roiled by Saturday’s police shooting of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown.

“I know that many Americans have been deeply disturbed by the images we’ve seen in the heartland of our country as police have clashed with people protesting,” Mr. Obama said. “Today, I’d like us all to take a step back and think about how we’re going to be moving forward.”

The president noted that he has ordered the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin an independent investigation of the shooting. The incident, he said, should not be used as an excuse for violence against law enforcement – or for law enforcement to use excessive force against peaceful protesters.

Nor should police arrest or attack reporters who are simply working, Obama said. Overnight Wednesday, officers hauled two journalists – one from The Washington Post and the other from The Huffington Post – to a police station in handcuffs. They fired tear gas at an Al Jazeera television crew and then turned off TV cameras after the crew fled.

“Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground,” Obama said.

“Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” the president concluded.

Will Obama’s statement help things cool down? If nothing else, it appears unlikely to further inflame emotions. The president appeared flat, almost restrained, as if trying to avoid controversy.

In previous high-profile news events where race was a major factor, he’s spoken out somewhat more forcefully. In 2009, Obama said that Cambridge, Mass., police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home following a 911 call reporting a suspected break-in at the residence. In 2013, the president said that Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager shot by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman, “could have been me.”

Obama may have learned from the partisan reaction to these incidents, or he may have judged that in regards to Ferguson, the time isn’t ripe for tougher presidential rhetoric. Or he may simply believe he doesn’t need to go further, given that photos from Ferguson of police in military outfits with armored vehicles aiming weapons at unarmed protesters have generated negative comments from Democrats and Republicans alike.

“There is little margin to Obama going hard on #Ferguson. If he does, it becomes a partisan issue at a time when consensus is forming,” tweeted Ian Millhiser, a legal scholar at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, following Obama’s statement.

The “consensus” that Mr. Millhiser refers to is probably that police in Ferguson have overreacted and flooded the streets with militarized forces equipped with camouflaged uniforms, automatic rifles, and armored personnel carriers.

Possible 2016 GOP presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky issued a very tough statement on this issue. Writing on Time magazine’s website, he said, "The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”

Senator Paul decried the growing militarization of police units throughout the United States, and he connected them to what he judges is the growing erosion of US civil liberties brought on by the war against terrorists. Then, if anything, he edged left of Obama on the racial component of the Ferguson riots.

“Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention,” Paul wrote.

These are bread-and-butter issues for the libertarian-leaning Paul, of course. But an array of conservative commentators expressed similar reservations about the police sharpshooters roaming Ferguson’s streets.

In the conservative National Review Online, Kevin D. Williamson called them “ridiculously militarized suburban police dressed up like characters from ‘Starship Troopers’ and pointing rifles at people from atop armored vehicles, i.e. the worst sort of mall ninjas.”

The media, says right-leaning pundit S.E. Cupp, have long ignored conservative complaints about the growing trend to arm police as if they will be deployed overseas.

“The right has been on the militarization of cops for years,” she tweeted Thursday.

Another possible 2016 Oval Office contender, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, was more restrained, calling on protesters to reject violence and for an end to “unrest” in Ferguson.

But he also criticized the police in Ferguson for their attacks on journalists.

“Reporters should never be detained – a free press is too important – simply for doing their jobs,” Senator Cruz said in a statement.

In this context of Washington reaction, some liberals found Obama’s statement to be tepid. They preferred the approach of Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, an icon of the civil rights movement, who called on the president to declare martial law and replace police with the National Guard in Ferguson.

“If we fail to act, the fires of frustration and discontent will continue to burn, not only in Ferguson, Mo., but all across America,” Representative Lewis said in an appearance on MSNBC.

On Thursday afternoon, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) announced that the Missouri State Highway Patrol will now be in charge of security in Ferguson.

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