President Obama sought to calm the increasingly tense situation in Ferguson, Mo., on Thursday, saying there was “no excuse” for “excessive force” by police or for looting or violence aimed at law enforcement.
Making a brief statement from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is on vacation, Obama said the police have a responsibility to be “open and transparent” about the events that led up to the shooting by a police officer of a black teenager in the city Saturday afternoon.
“Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority,” Obama told reporters.
He added that he had asked the Justice Department and FBI to conduct an independent investigation of what happened.
Obama criticized police for their tactics and the arrests of two reporters Wednesday night.
“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.
His remarks came as his administration was under growing pressure to ramp up the federal response to the racial tensions in Ferguson. Obama issued a statement earlier in the week, but calls for a personal reaction — and deeper White House engagement — had grown along with the unrest in the St. Louis suburb.
Protests have escalated into violent clashes with police since a Ferguson police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Saturday afternoon. The situation spiraled significantly Wednesday as police fired rubber bullets and released tear gas into the crowds. Journalists from the Washington Post and Huffington Post were arrested.
As the clashes have grown more intense, political leaders in both parties have criticized the heavily armed, confrontational tactics used by the Ferguson police.
Missouri’s Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill issued a statement shortly before Obama spoke calling for “demilitarizing” the situation in Ferguson. The “response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution,” McCaskill said in a statement.
And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in an op-ed article for Time magazine, denounced the “militarization of our law enforcement.” Police departments across the country have become too heavily armed as part of an “unprecedented expansion of government power,” Paul said.
Moreover, he said, “given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.”
Witnesses have said Brown was running with his hands in the air when the police officer fired. The St. Louis County Police Department has released few details about the incident and have refused to release the name of the officer involved.
The Justice Department has said it is assisting local authorities with the investigation. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. briefed Obama on the situation Wednesday night, the White House said.
Obama has weighed in on issues of race and justice repeatedly throughout his second term, and has shown a particular willingness to speak out on the lives of young African American men. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s case, in which a neighborhood watch volunteer was acquitted in the killing of an unarmed Florida teen, Obama showed the events touched him personally, saying, “This could have been my son.”
“Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said in July 2013.
With far fewer details known about what led to Brown’s shooting, Obama’s statement Thursday was more cautious and less personal. He described the incident as “heartbreaking and tragic” and sympathized with Brown’s parents.
“His family will never hold Michael in their arms again,” he said.
Obama however focused more closely on the responsibly and role of authorities in calming the outcry. He expressed confidence in Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has been criticized for failing to be present in Ferguson. The president spoke to Nixon by phone Thursday morning and said he was confident the governor was “going to be able to communicate his desire to make sure that justice is done.”
Obama made his statement from the cafeteria of the elementary school in this well-heeled resort town. During his annual summer vacation here, he typically delivers statements to the press from outside whichever secluded, luxury home his family is renting. But this time he traveled into town to speak about Ferguson, as well as the success of the humanitarian mission to aid Yazidi refugees in Iraq. Immediately after the brief statement, he continued his vacation and headed to the golf course.
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