Last year, right before President Barack Obama made his unannounced appearance in the White House briefing room to personally address the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, on murder charges, I was among those who argued, no, the president shouldn’t be called on to make a statement about the case.
Although the words Obama ultimately offered were powerful, moving and appropriate, I believed then, and still do, that no matter how unjust the verdict felt to so many Americans—including me—the president of the United States shouldn’t tread anywhere near the possibility of second-guessing a duly rendered jury verdict.
Because, as I wrote at the time, no matter how Obama felt about Trayvon’s death—as a parent, as a black man, as a compassionate human being—it falls to the president, as the head of government and head of state, “to represent the American system” even “with all its attendant flaws.”
But last week we saw the system run amok—police in Ferguson, Mo., using equipment meant for a war zone to disperse crowds that were, for the most part, peacefully demonstrating to express outrage over a teenager being killed by a police officer in broad daylight—followed by the selective release of details about the case that appear, pretty clearly, to be meant to shield the shooter from responsibility and cast a negative light on the shooting victim. And for that reason I believe Obama was absolutely right to speak directly last Thursday about events in Ferguson.
I’ve been surprised, though, by some of the criticism that Obama has taken over the last couple of days by critics who feel that he has somehow shirked responsibility in this situation. That “President Obama failed”—as Michael Eric Dyson said Friday while hosting MSNBC’s The Ed Show—“in his leadership to say what he really knows and has lived as a black man in America.” Or that, according to CNN’s Marc Lamont Hill, Obama, in his general appeal for calm on all sides, “failed to acknowledge the legitimacy of black anger.”
It strikes me that the president’s words last week were exactly right.
Obama offered condolences to Michael Brown’s family. He called on police to conduct an “open and transparent” investigation—something they’ve failed to do. He called out police use of “excessive force,” announced that he’d been in direct contact with Missouri’s governor and explained what steps he instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to take. Indeed, he declined to cast the incident in specifically racial terms and instead emphasized that his priority was restoring peace and calm.
But he did emphasize that government—including police—must uphold “the dignity of every single man, woman and child.” And he left the door open to more directly address race, as he did after Trayvon’s death, in his own time.
Yes, President Obama can, and should, offer a more comprehensive response for Americans. He should connect Brown’s killing to the fatal shooting last week of unarmed Ezell Ford by the Los Angeles Police Department, the vicious beating last month of Marlene Pinnock by a California Highway Patrol officer and last month’s choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer while other officers stood watching.
That’s not just an issue for the first black president. It’s an issue that any president should address. But although there are a lot of different voices that can underscore the racial injustice that surrounds Ferguson and the killing of Michael Brown, there’s only one person who can direct FBI resources and order the Justice Department to investigate a civil rights violation: Obama. And I’d rather see someone who does understand black anger fulfilling that role rather than focusing on making speeches.
The president may yet have to get more involved—to take over the investigation of Brown’s death or to federalize the Missouri National Guard—if Gov. Jay Nixon and local law enforcement continue to demonstrate that they can’t resolve the situation without trampling over the people of Ferguson.
It’s worth noting, though, that the man Americans elected twice to lead them is approaching Ferguson the same way he approaches the Middle East, Ukraine, Newtown, immigration, Birthers and the debt ceiling. He’s a measured guy. In this kind of a crisis, that’s a feature, not a bug.
And if you ask me, so far he’s found the right balance between his role as explainer in chief and his role as the chief executive.
Also on The Root: “Obama: Attorney General Eric Holder Will Be in Ferguson on Wednesday”
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.