Obama begs for calm as rioters set fires and attack police cars in Ferguson after grand jury refuses to indict police officer in Michael Brown case
- Television split-screen broadcasts showed dramatic contrast between the president’s requests for nonviolent reactions and the fires set on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri
- Dispelling black activists’ distrust for police ‘won’t be done by smashing car windows,’ Obama said, as cable news screens showed windows being smashed and reporters warned of shots fired
- Rioters threw bottles and rocks at police after grand jury members decided they couldn’t charge Officer Darren Wilson with a crime
- Obama left the press briefing room after a nine-minute statement when reporters began asking him whether Wilson will face separate federal civil-rights charges
After members of a grand jury determined that police officer Darren Wilson will not face criminal charges related to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, peaceful protests spiraled out of control. Obama spoke to the nation a half-hour later.
The president said anger is an ‘understandable reaction’ from people who believe ‘the law is being applied in a discriminatory fashion,’ a reference to Wilson being white and Brown being black.
‘What we need to do is try to understand them,’ Obama said.
And referring to a growing feeling of distrust between urban blacks and mostly white police forces, he warned that healing the rift ‘won’t be done by smashing car windows. That won’t be done by using this as an excuse to vandalize property. It certainly won’t be done by hurting anybody.’
‘There is no excuse for violence,’ he said.
‘Those who are only interested in violence and just want the problem to go away should realize that we have work to do here.’
As the president spoke, cable news channels broadcast split-screen views of an imperturbable Obama on one side and angry reactions on the other.
Police ‘need to work with the community, not against the community,’ he said, indicating his desire to see law enforcement isolate violent instigators – many of whom traveled to Missouri from great distances – and a larger group of people ‘who want to protest peacefully.’
‘The fact is,’ he said, ‘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. We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America.’
Obama delivered his nine-minute statement, answered a single question and then left the White House briefing room as journalists asked whether brown will face separate federal charges related to alleged civil-rights violations.
The Missouri grand jury’s decision isn’t binding on the Department of Justice in Washington, where outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder still could charge him.
It’s possible that Wilson could still face a federal trial and a long prison sentence. That would still be the case even if he had been acquitted in a state-level court.
Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill hinted at a second bite at the apple for the government in a statement issued after the news broke, saying Missourians should ‘await the conclusion of … [an] independent investigation’ being undertaken by the DOJ before passing judgment.
But on Monday the president firmly legitimized the 12 citizens, nine white and three black, who heard evidence over a stretch of weeks and decided it didn’t add up to an indictment.
‘First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law, and so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make,’ Obama said.
‘There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply upset, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction. But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully.’
‘Let’s take a look and see how things are going,’ he said in response to the one question he took.
‘Eric Holder’s been there. We’ve had a whole team from the Justice Department there. And I think that they have done some very good work.’
The grand jury process is different from a courtroom trial. It’s conducted in secret and without balance between the government and a potential defendant.
Unlike in a trial, where a jury must assign guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the grand jury must only decide whether or not there’s a rational reason – a ‘probable cause – to believe that a crime was committed and sufficient evidence to bring the case to court.
Despite taking place in that far more prosecution-friendly environment, the grand jury’s determination means that the weight of the prosecution’s case was too weak to sustain charges.