Two teens shot dead, two different Obama reactions
Washington — Two unarmed black teenagers shot dead. Two very different reactions from President Barack Obama.
In contrast to the deeply personal response that Obama delivered last year after a Florida jury found Trayvon Martin’s killer not guilty, America’s first black president was more restrained in speaking after a Missouri grand jury declined to indict Michael Brown’s shooter.
The cases have many differences, most notably that the bullets that took Brown’s life came from a policeman’s gun after a confrontation on the street.
Obama’s call for calm Monday night was not heeded by the protesters in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson who torched buildings and police cars, smashed and looted storefront windows and fired gunshots. In a real-time display of the limits of his influence, television networks showed Obama’s remarks from the White House on a split screen with live video of the violence.
“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 in response to the decision not to charge police officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death.
White House officials are still considering whether Obama should travel to Ferguson, weighing the importance of the moment with the risk of inflaming tensions. They say a trip won’t come this week with the Thanksgiving holiday, giving them time to watch the response unfold and consider the president’s options. The White House said Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett reached out to Attorney General Eric Holder and civil rights leaders, while Broderick Johnson, who heads Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, called the Missouri congressional delegation.
Speaking at the White House half an hour after the grand jury’s decision was announced, Obama tried to give voice to the feelings on all sides of the racially charged questions that have risen since Brown was killed Aug. 9. The president pleaded with both residents and police to show restraint. He said the case was a demonstration of how America’s legacy of racial discrimination has led to distrust between law enforcement and minorities, but he also sought to dispel the notion that race relations have deteriorated.
The balanced middle ground stood in contrast to the stance Obama took in July 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Martin as he walked back from a convenience store. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said then, going on to describe how he had experienced being followed in a department store or hearing drivers lock their doors when he walked by.
Marcia Chatelain, who teaches black history at Georgetown University and has written extensively about how educators can speak to students about Ferguson, said Obama’s remarks Monday night “felt a lot emptier” than they did following the Martin case. She cited three major differences between the two situations — that the president seemed to personally identify with Martin in a way he didn’t with Brown; that he was responding to anxiety about violence in Missouri that wasn’t a factor in Florida and that the more recent case involved law enforcement. Still, she said she wished he would have spoken out about Ferguson sooner, and differently.
“When we look at this moment and we look at the president’s words, they just were not sufficient to really fully recognize what was happening to the people of Ferguson,” she said. “Even with the power of the office of the president, that message wasn’t strong enough because the fear and the violence and the victimization are even stronger.”