I am somewhat surprised that I haven’t seen anybody else here take Barack Obama to task for the wrongheaded way he handled the mess in Ferguson.
First, Obama should have been in Ferguson yesterday, before the decision was announced. He should have been standing there with the governor, not meekly asking for people to refrain from violence, but saying in emphatic terms that not only was violence uncalled for, but that any street protests or “vigils” or anything similar would not be appropriate that day — for the very reason that in such a potentially incendiary situation, the mere concentrated presence of numerous frustrated and angry people would be likely to give rise to violence even if the vast majority of people there do not intend for violence to occur. He should have said, beforehand, that no matter what the grand jury decided, it would be beneath contempt — not just mistaken, or unfortunate, or some other weak word, but literally beneath contempt — for any self-respecting American to react with violence. He should have said that there will be plenty of time for peaceful vigils later, and he could have then made all of his reasonable points about the need for better understanding between police and various “communities,” and about the absolute fact that many “communities of color” feel they don’t get a fair shake from police — and that, in far fewer instances than those communities believe, but still definite instances — those impressions are likely correct. He could make it clear, though, that the problem goes both ways: that one reason blacks are arrested and incarcerated at higher per capita rates is because blacks commit crimes (especially against other blacks) at higher per capita rates; and in a free society with multiple layers of safety nets, criminal activity, especially of a violent nature, is never justified.
In short, he could have, indeed should have, spoken before the decision, and used it as a teaching moment both for those who wrongly believe that black frustration has no rational basis and for those blacks, or citizens of any color, who try to justify misbehavior on the basis that it is somehow an acceptable reaction to a system supposedly rigged against them.
And he should have, much more forcefully, told everybody in Ferguson to just stay home and to show respect for their fellow citizens doing their civic duty via very difficult service on the grand jury.
Having not gone to Ferguson and spoken in advance in such forceful terms, Obama last night should have used his White House statement for only two main purposes. The first would be to defend the jury system: to stress that the grand jurors had a very difficult task and that their judgment should be respected and afforded great weight; to explain that cases should be weighed on the evidence and not pre-judged and that this jury’s exhaustive weighing of the evidence was admirable; to acknowledge that copious evidence had utterly disproved some of the earliest accounts of the shooting and had proved that there was some sort of confrontation within the police car itself (so that no matter how somebody ultimately judged the weight of the evidence and the degree of the officer’s culpability, criminal or otherwise, it is important to recognize that the original stories were grossly inaccurate and thus to discount those false stories as a basis for anger); and to say that the way in the future to ensure that juries do their jobs well is for everybody to do their civic duty by serving when called. The second main purpose, of course, would be to urge, in much, much, much more forceful terms than he used last night, that everybody disperse and avoid violence — and to say that those who resort to violence anyway will deserve to have the full force of the law used against them, and indeed will be subjected to the full force of the law.
All the rest of his message last night — distrust between cops and communities, the fact of racial disparities in arrests (whether justified or not), the need to express grief over the ending of a young life — could then have followed, but they should have been subsidiary messages, more in the line with a pledge to take them up later, rather than being the message he spent 90 percent of his statement on.
But from watching Obama, it was pretty clear that his defense of the rule of law was perfunctory, and that he tacitly condoned the questioning of the grand jury’s judgment. What was worse was when he almost blithely said that, well, of course a few people will violently misbehave, but . . .Well, blast it, he should have said “but nothing.” He should have said: “It might turn out to be the case that some will violently misbehave. Some say it is inevitable. But it is not inevitable. I am your president. I tell you that I think we are better than that, and I demand that you prove it. If you react violently, you bring dishonor to your neighborhood, your community, your city, your country, and most of all to your own self. Violent reaction shows you to be weak, not strong. It shows you to be worthy not of respect but of contempt. It will be sickening behavior, and I will not stand for it.”
There will be plenty of time to address systemic injustices. Systemic injustices ought to be fixed. But last night was not a time to stress the injustices. Last night was a time for firm and unambiguous denunciation of lawlessness and riot. Obama failed that duty. His performance was unworthy of the office he holds.