American Culture

From the bully pulpit — not much, let alone outrage

Obama’s Ferguson ‘speech’ says little, offers less, provides no national direction

I just finished watching President Obama’s remarks last night after the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown shooting.

Shortly after the shooting, a friend and I were discussing the president’s response at that time. We asked, “Where is his anger? Where is his outrage?” It’s fair to ask those questions again.

It’s fair to observe that much of what the president said last night has for a long time been evident to anyone who knows about the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965, where police attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. It’s been evident to anyone who knows about the racist ugliness surrounding the integration of public schools in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. It’s been evident to anyone who knows about the murder of Emmett Till, 14, who was dragged from his bedroom by three men, beaten, shot, and dumped into a river for flirting with a white woman in a grocery store in 1955. And the long history of racism and violence includes thousands of additional incidents, some known, many others not.

Sadly but predictably, President Obama relied last night on the two pillars of political speeches: stating the obvious, and saying nothing of substance. For example, the president said of the grand jury’s decision, “There are Americans who agree with [the decision] and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. That’s an understandable reaction.” As if none of us could figure this out on our own.

The president also observed, non-helpfully, that “We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation.” He said these challenges were part of the “legacy of racial discrimination in this country.” At the risk of sounding flippant, no kidding.

So, what did the president say that might lead the nation to think that in cases of police shootings of black men, maybe the police will no longer benefit from a presumption of their innocence? What did the president say about far-reaching, long-term strategies to ease the feeling among black people that—in the words of James Baldwin—”To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time”? Baldwin was a fierce advocate of black rights, and much of what he wrote in the ’50s and ’60s reflects a difficult to comprehend, unacceptable hatred of white people, but that is not to say his observations were his own only or that his rage was not genuine.

The president said nothing specific last night, saying instead, “The good news is, we know there are things we can do to help.” As far as those “things” are concerned, they haven’t been of much help so far, have they?

What bothered me most about the president’s speech is that some of his remarks simply should not need to be said in America in 2014. For example, Obama said police in Ferguson need to exercise “care and restraint managing peaceful (emphasis mine) protests that may occur.” Should it be necessary to urge police not to fire tear gas and rubber bullets in a country where the right to peaceably assemble is spelled out in the Bill of Rights?

Should it be necessary for the president to say that police ranks should represent the demographic makeup of their communities? Ferguson’s population is about 30 percent white, but its police force is 97 percent white. As the president pointed out, “The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust between exists between law enforcement and communities of color.” Why wouldn’t it, when The Man is almost all the time white and civil rights violations go unpunished?

Should it be necessary to ask police to “work with the community, not against the community” as they try to determine who the burners and looters are, as opposed to the “vast majority who just want their voices heard around legitimate issues in terms of how communities and law enforcement interact.”

Should it have been necessary for the president to say he was going to ask his attorney general, Eric Holder, to “work with cities across the country to help build better relations between communities and law enforcement”?

At the end of his remarks, when I was hoping for the thunder to come down, the president took the easy way out, once more stating the obvious: “We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson; this is an issue for America.”

Unfortunately, we saw no signs from the president last night that he is going to lead the nation and confront these issues. I was hoping to see the president take the bully pulpit for a little righteous preaching. Instead, I heard a detached professor, a politician, say a whole bunch of nothing.

5 replies »

  1. I actually saw people BITCHING THAT OBAMA SAID EVEN A SINGLE WORD ABOUT IT. They weren’t upset with WHAT he said. They were upset that he BROUGHT IT UP AT ALL. “With so many other things going on in the world . . .” As if the routine murder of citizens (usually black ones) by those who are supposed to PROTECT us, and an entire community absolutely enraged, wasn’t appropriate for address by the president. I couldn’t believe that. Absolutely unbelievable. Thanks for posting this!
    —Love & Liberation—
    Jan Smitowicz

  2. Ferguson’s population is about 30 percent white, but its police force is 97 percent white.

    The grand jury was 75% white and the prosecutor was a white man determined to avoid charging Wilson at all costs.

    Great analysis. But by now my expectations of Obama are so low that if you want them any lower you’re going to need to rent a backhoe.