President Barack Obama said on Monday that he has dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday to assess the ongoing federal investigation into the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager that has led to a week of unrest in the St. Louis suburb.
Obama, who made the comments at the White House after meeting with Holder about the continuing clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, again urged residents and officers to not mistreat each other in the aftermath of the shooting.
“Ours is a nation of laws: of citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them,” Obama said. “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.”
The shooting of Michael Brown, 18, has led to days rioting, vandalism and looting as well as complaints across the nation that local police have overreacted in the way they are treating residents. Brown was killed Aug. 9 by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
In answer to a question, Obama said “it’s probably useful for us to review” the militarization of local police. “There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred,” he said. That would be contrary to our traditions.”
Obama said he spoke earlier with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill about the situation.
In Ferguson, Holder will meet with federal investigators as well as community leaders. Ronald Davis, director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, will travel to Ferguson Tuesday. More than 40 FBI agents continued canvassing the neighborhood where Brown was shot Monday.
Obama, who did not announce any plans to visit Ferguson himself, spoke about the case in a different way than he spoke about Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed as he was walking home through a gated community in February 2012. Then, he uttered some of his most extensive and personal remarks on race since entering the White House as he described what it’s like to be a black man in America.
“I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed,” Obama said Monday. “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.”
But Obama did talk about his new program, My Brother’s Keeper, designed to empower young black men.
“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. “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.”
Earlier Monday, Nixon lifted the overnight curfew he imposed on Ferguson after asking the Missouri National Guard to help restore order. Obama said he told Nixon that the National Guard should be used in “a limited and appropriate way.”
“I’ll be watching over the next several days, to assess whether, in fact, it’s helping rather than hindering progress in Ferguson,” he said.
Holder said Sunday that a federal medical examiner would conduct an independent autopsy of Brown. An autopsy conducted for the Brown family showed the teenager was shot at least six times, including twice in the head.
“I realize there is tremendous interest in the facts of the incident that led to Michael Brown’s death, but I ask for the public’s patience as we conduct this investigation,” Holder said in a statement. The selective release of sensitive information that we have seen in this case so far is troubling to me. No matter how others pursue their own separate inquiries, the Justice Department is resolved to preserve the integrity of its investigation. This is a critical step in restoring trust between law enforcement and the community, not just in Ferguson, but beyond.”
Obama flew back to Washington Sunday night from Martha’s Vineyard, where his family is on vacation. He will return to Martha’s Vineyard Tuesday. The First Family comes back to Washington Aug. 24.