A grim-faced President Obama briefly addressed the nation Monday night in the wake of the decision by a Missouri grand jury not to issue an indictment against a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last summer.
As sporadic acts of violence broke out among demonstrators in the Ferguson region, Obama urged the public to remember “we are a nation built on the rule of law…We need to accept this decision was the grand jury’s to make.”
Obama had a message for the news media as well that were already delivering wall-to-wall coverage of the reaction to the Ferguson decision. He called on news media to be sure to balance coverage of potential violence with more positive responses to the questions spurred by the Brown case. There were large gatherings of people reported in New York City, Los Angeles and other cities but there were no immediate reports of looting or other dangerous behavior.
“We have to make sure that we focus at least as much attention on all those positive activities that are taking place as we do on a handful of folks who end up using this as an excuse to misbehave or to break the law or to engage in violence,” Obama said. “I think that it’s going to be very important — and I think the media is going to have a responsibility as well — to make sure that we focus on Michael Brown’s parents, and the clergy, and the community leaders, and the civil rights leaders, and the activists, and law enforcement officials who have been working very hard to try to find better solutions — long-term solutions, to this issue.
“There is inevitably going to be some negative reaction, and it will make for good TV. But what we want to do is to make sure that we’re also focusing on those who can offer the kind of real progress that we know is possible, that the vast majority of people in Ferguson, the St. Louis region, in Missouri, and around the country are looking for.”
Obama acknowledged that the decision was divisive and that some Americans would be “deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction.”
“We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation,” he said. “The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color. Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. And this is tragic, because nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates.”
The August shooting of Brown, who was unarmed and reportedly shot while his hands were in the air, sparked weeks of civil unrest in the St. Louis suburb this summer. The grand jury’s decision not to file charges against officer Darren Wilson was has been warily anticipated. News outlets around the world went into countdown mode earlier on Monday when it became clear that the decision would be revealed around 9 p.m. ET.
Obama spoke about an hour later, at 10:08 p.m. ET. He cited the words of Brown’s father, who issued a statement urging calm and non-violence as a way of honoring his son’s memory and allowing for more effective means of pressing for social change. The Justice Department also continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
“Michael Brown’s parents have lost more than anyone. We should be honoring their wishes,” he said.
Obama walked a fine line in trying to acknowledge the outrage of those who believe the shooting underscored the rampant injustice that black men face at the hands of police officers without undercutting the legal process that unfolded after the shooting. He appealed to law enforcement “to show care and restraint in managing peaceful protests that may occur.”