President Obama betrayed the nation last night. Even as he went on national television to respond to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown in August, the vicious violence that would destroy businesses and livelihoods over the next several hours was underway. Obama had one job and one job only last night: to defend the workings of the criminal-justice system and the rule of law. Instead, he turned his talk into a primer on police racism and criminal-justice bias. In so doing, he perverted his role as the leader of all Americans and as the country’s most visible symbol of the primacy of the law.
Obama gestured wanly toward the need to respect the grand jury’s decision and to protest peacefully. “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,” he said. But his tone of voice and body language unmistakably conveyed his disagreement, if not disgust, with that decision. “There are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction,” he said. Understandable, so long as one ignores the evidence presented to the grand jury. The testimony of a half-dozen black observers at the scene demolished the early incendiary reports that Wilson attacked Brown in cold blood and shot Brown in his back when his hands were up. Those early witnesses who had claimed gratuitous brutality on Wilson’s part contradicted themselves and were in turn contradicted by the physical evidence and by other witnesses, who corroborated Wilson’s testimony that Brown had attacked him and had tried to grab his gun. (Minutes before, the nearly 300-pound Brown had thuggishly robbed a shopkeeper of a box of cigars; Wilson had received a report of that robbery and a description of Brown before stopping him.) Obama should have briefly reiterated the grounds for not indicting Wilson and applauded the decision as the product of a scrupulously thorough and fair process. He should have praised the jurors for their service and courage in following the evidence where it led them. And he should have concluded by noting that there is no fairer criminal justice system in the world than the one we have in the United States.
Instead, Obama reprimanded local police officers in advance for their presumed overreaction to the protests: “I also appeal to the law enforcement officials in Ferguson and the region to show care and restraint in managing peaceful protests that may occur. . . . They need to work with the community, not against the community, to distinguish the handful of people who may use the grand jury’s decision as an excuse for violence . . . from the vast majority who just want their voices heard around legitimate issues in terms of how communities and law enforcement interact.” Such skepticism about the ability of the police to maintain the peace appropriately was unwarranted at the time and even more so in retrospect; the forces of law and order didn’t fire a single shot last night. Nor did they inflict injury, despite having been fired at themselves. Missouri governor Jay Nixon has been under attack for days for having authorized a potential mobilization of the National Guard—as if the August rioting didn’t more than justify such a precaution. Any small business owner facing another wave of violence would have been desperate for such protection and more. Though Nixon didn’t actually call up the Guard last night, his prophylactic declaration of a state of emergency proved prescient.
Obama left no doubt that he believed the narrative of the mainstream media and race activists about Ferguson. That narrative held that the shooting of Brown was a symbol of nationwide police misbehavior and that the August riots were an “understandable” reaction to widespread societal injustice. “The situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation. The fact is in too many parts of this country a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.” This distrust is justified, in Obama’s view. He reinvoked the “diversity” bromide about the racial composition of police forces, implying that white officers cannot fairly police black communities. In fact, some of the most criticized law-enforcement bodies in recent years have been majority black.
“We have made enormous progress in race relations,” Obama conceded. “But what is also true is that there are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up. . . . The law too often feels like it’s being applied in a discriminatory fashion . . . these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down.” To claim that the laws are applied in a discriminatory fashion is a calumny, unsupported by evidence. For the president of the United States to put his imprimatur on such propaganda is bad enough; to do so following a verdict in so incendiary a case is grossly irresponsible. But such partiality follows the pattern of this administration in Ferguson and elsewhere, with Attorney General Eric Holder prematurely declaring the Ferguson police force in need of wholesale change and President Obama invoking Ferguson at the United Nations as a manifestation of America’s ethnic strife.
Last night’s wanton destruction was over-determined. For weeks, the press has been salivating at the potential for black violence. The New York Times has been running several stories a day, most on the front page, about such a prospect, building on its series earlier in the fall about racism in Ferguson. Press coverage of racial tension treats black violence as both expected and normal. By now, riots are regarded as virtually a black entitlement.
The press is dusting off hoary tropes about police stops and racism. Clearly we are reentering a period of heightened anti-law enforcement agitation, recalling the racial profiling crusade of the 1990s. The New York Times’s fall series selected various features of Ferguson almost at random and declared them racist, simply by virtue of their being associated with the city. A similar conceit has already emerged regarding the now-concluded grand jury investigation: innocent or admirable features of the prosecutor’s management of the case, such as the thoroughness of the evidence presented, are now blasted as the product of a flawed or deliberately tainted process, so desperate are the activists to discredit the grand jury’s decision.
This misinformation about the criminal-justice system and the police will increase hatred of the police. That hatred, in turn, will heighten the chances of more Michael Browns attacking officers and getting shot themselves. Police officers in the tensest areas may back off of assertive policing. Such de-policing will leave thousands of law-abiding minority residents who fervently support the police ever more vulnerable to thugs.
Obama couldn’t have stopped the violence last night with his address to the nation. But in casting his lot with those who speciously impugn our criminal-justice system, he has increased the likelihood of more such violence in the future.