President Barack Obama addressed the nation late Monday, calling for calm less than one hour after a St. Louis prosecutor announced there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson in August.
The president, who said he stood with Brown’s parents in calling for peaceful protests, spoke as violence and anger over the decision had already spilled into the streets of the St. Louis suburb. Meanwhile, hundreds reportedly gathered outside the White House to voice their frustrations.
“Michael Brown’s parents have lost more than anyone, we should be honoring their wishes,” Obama said from the White House briefing room. He urged protesters to heed the Brown family’s stance that hurting others and destroying property is not the answer.
The president acknowledged there has been tremendous racial progress in America, which he said he has “witnessed in my lifetime.” But he also said the country can’t ignore that “there are still problems and communities of color are not just making these problems up”
“In too many parts of this country a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.” He then outlined Justice Department efforts to improve community engagement and representation within their local law enforcement agencies. He also highlighted his administration’s commitment to improving the quality of policing in impoverished areas. Still, he admitted “we do have work to do here and we shouldn’t try to paper it over.”
The president repeatedly sought to separate peaceful protesters from potential criminal elements, and called on police in Ferguson to “work with the community, not against the community.”
‘To those in Ferguson, there are ways of channeling your concerns constructively and there are ways of channeling your concerns destructively,” the president said.
When asked if he would make an in-person visit to Ferguson similar to the one Attorney General Eric Holder made this fall, Obama said “Let’s take a look and see how things are going.” The president suggested that once the smoke clears there may be an opportunity to “seize the moment and turn this into a positive situation” but that in the short term police and local authorities would have to do their best to prevent “a handful of folks” from taking advantage of the tension in the wake of the grand jury decision to break the law and exploit anger on the ground.
“This is inevitably going to be some negative reaction and it will make for good TV,” Obama said. But ultimately he said argued it was up to positive figures in the community – civil rights leaders, clergy, the Brown family – to continue what he called a “constructive dialogue.”
The president did not address the federal investigation into the Brown case, but St. Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch confirmed on Monday that it is ongoing.