President Obama on Thursday came out strongly against the spiraling unrest and heavy-handed police tactic in Ferguson, Missouri, where tear gas and smoke grenades were thrown as peaceful protesters rallied over the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
The president took a break from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to vow that justice will be served in last weekend's police shooting and also said it was against American values to arrest reporters.
While he said there is no excuse for violence against police officers, he also said there is “no excuse for police to use force against a peaceful protest.” He added: “Here in the United States of the American, police should not be arresting or bullying journalists.” Two reporters were briefly detained Wednesday night.
Obama said he understands why Americans are “deeply disturbed” by images of clashes between militarized police and protesters, and that he’s directed the Department of Justice to not only investigate the killing of Michael Brown, but also to consult with local authorities on less provocative ways to maintain public safety.
"Now is the time for healing. Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson. Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done," Obama concluded.
But the president did not heed calls from members of his own party to make a radical change. Congressman John Lewis – a recognized leader of the Civil Rights Movement – spoke out Thursday saying Obama should use the authority of his office to declare martial law to “federalize the Missouri national guard to protect people as they protest.”
The White House is fending off charges that it was too slow to respond to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Missouri. It did not look good Wednesday night as Obama partied at a golf resort on tony Martha’s Vineyard while the heartland burned. The juxtaposition of tear gas canisters and riot gear on one hand, with Obama’s surf and turf menu and boasts of all-night dancing on the other came in for quick condemnation on social media.
Late Wednesday night, a White House spokesperson tweeted about Obama seeing Hillary Clinton at the party, after some tensions between the two. It was something which seemed so important only a few hours earlier, but suddenly looked hopelessly frivolous -- “spoiler alert: a good time was had by all,” the spokesperson said -- as violent clashes continued.
Just hours earlier, at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon, White House spokesperson Eric Schultz got 14 questions about Clinton and Obama’s upcoming meeting, including several about journalists’ access to the party. He got just one on the situation in Ferguson.
Other political leaders were apparently caught off guard as well.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has been criticized for what some feel is a lackluster response, promised residents Thursday morning that they would soon see “a much better and much different tone” from police. The St. Louis County police force has been relieved of duty, and Nixon said details about a new order would be announced at a press conference this afternoon.
“I'm sorry I was late -- I do have a good excuse,” Nixon told attendees at a local church. “I was on the phone with the President of the United States."
In his remarks, Obama called Nixon “a good man and a fine governor,” and suggested he was counting on the executive to take charge of the situation. “I expressed my concern over the violent turn that events have taken on the ground,” Obama said.
At the meeting with residents in the church in Ferguson, the moderator told Nixon, "You are the governor of the 'Show Me State,' and we have decided that we're going to test this tonight."
The state’s Democratic Senator, Claire McCaskill, also met with constituents in Ferguson on Thursday and said she has spoken with Department of Justice officials about an investigation. McCaskill, herself a former prosecutor, said in a statement that “we need to de-militarize this situation -- this kind of response the police has become the problem instead of the solution.”
Clinton, for her part, has also not spoken out on the issue, though as a private citizen, she is not expected to address everything in the news. A spokesperson for Clinton did not respond to a request for comment on the situation in Ferguson.