Why Isn’t Obama Doing Anything About Ferguson?
- Michel'le Donnelly
Protests - and later a police shutdown - lasted for weeks in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked by the shooting of black teen, Michael Brown, by one of the city's white officers, Darren Wilson. President Obama has been criticised for his lack of support for the Ferguson community, but does he really have the power to do anything about it?
“Words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every colour and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States.”
These are the impassioned words spoken by US President Barack Obama. No, he did not say this in the wake of the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Instead, this is an excerpt from a speech at an election rally in 2008; a speech commentator’s say secured his passage to the White House. These are the kind of words the community of the St. Louis city were looking for when rioting broke out over its streets.
The shooting of an unarmed, black male by a white police officer is an all too familiar narrative for African-Americans. The town of Ferguson has become the latest example of the simmering racial divide that looms beneath the great American dream. Brown, 18, was shot six times and killed by a white police officer two weeks ago – Brown was unarmed. The incident sparked mass riots and protests. Pictures coming out of Ferguson resembled the marches in Tahrir Square, not what you’d think the leading country of the free world with a black president would look like.
When President Obama did speak about the unrest in Ferguson, he used his words to call for calm:“Now is the time for healing. Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done.” Critics called Obama’s response to the situation “detached” and claimed he looked bored. Anthea Butler, a religion and black studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania said, “People expected a lot more, and they weren’t impressed.” Responses on Twitter added to this feeling.
Barack Obama is either very tired, doesn’t believe a single word he’s saying re: Michael Brown, or both.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) August 18, 2014
I *think* Obama is the last black man in the country who actually believes he’s living in post-racial America. Him, and Don Lemon maybe.— Saeed Jones (@theferocity) August 18, 2014
Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and hip-hop academic, called upon Obama: “It is not enough for him to come on national television and pretend there is a false moral equivalency between police people who are armed and black people who are vulnerable constantly to this. He needs to use his bully pulpit to step up and articulate this as a vision.”
Sure, this was not the Obama of 2008. It’s not the Obama who, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, said that Martin “could have been me 35 years ago”, either. But in what Politico reporter Todd S. Purdum describes as a “paradox” of his presidency, Obama is facing a tough case. Here is America’s first black president and he is constrained to speaking on racial issues in the most balanced way possible.
Ezra Klein provides an explanation for the President’s response. In an article for Vox, he writes that Obama and the White House believe a presidential speech on a politically charged topic “is as likely to infuriate conservatives, as it is to inspire liberals. And in a country driven by political polarisation, widening that divide can take hard problems and make them impossible problems.”
In 2009, Obama faced criticism after weighing in on a situation where a Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr. – who is black – was arrested by a white officer and charged with disorderly conduct. Obama first said police “acted stupidly”. He was criticised for commenting on a situation where a full investigation had not been carried out. In times like this we must remember that Obama is not the president for black America, rather he is the President of America and is black. Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at the California State University compares Obama to Tom Bradley, the first black mayor of Los Angeles. Bradley always had to repeat, “I’m the mayor of L.A., not the black mayor of L.A.”
This is not to say President Obama does not feel compassion or empathy with the African-American population. He probably feels every bit sick and tired of the grave injustices that are carried out on the streets of the US everyday. It’s just that he can’t be the one to say it.
The American justice system needs to be called to action. It’s been near to three weeks since Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, yet there is still no clear report on exactly what took place that night. It was nearly a week before Wilson was even named. According to figures by FiveThirtyEight, there is no governmental effort at all to record the number of unjustifiable homicides by police. 4% is the percentage of American law enforcement agencies that report any police-involved shootings to the FBI’s database. This means the USA is left with a reporting system that tells them very little about how many people are being killed by police. Then there is the police department in Ferguson. In a town with a 67% black population how is it that there are only three officers of colour?
The situation in the USA is not something President Obama alone can fix. The country is fraught with a history of racial discrimination and police brutality. Americans, black and white, need to work together to make the social change. There needs to be open and peaceful dialogue where the grave injustices that occur when it comes to black people and law enforcement in the country are acknowledged.
Then, and only then, can the volcano that is racial divide in the US remain dormant for good.
Feature image by Kenny Bahr and insert photo of Michael Brown.