Obama Confronted by Race Politics as He Weighs Next Move on Ferguson

US President Barack Obama makes his way off the stage following the announcement of the decision in the case of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on November 24, 2014 in Washington, DC.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s pleas for calm in Ferguson went unheeded last night, shifting the focus to what, if anything, he can do now to calm tensions over the police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.

Obama left open the possibility that he might visit the Missouri city, a nod to pressure he has received from black leaders to get more personally involved in the case. He’s expected to discuss the situation during an appearance today in Chicago, according to White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

The Justice Department is conducting two inquiries in Ferguson. The first is reviewing whether police officer Darren Wilson violated federal civil-rights laws when he killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. The other is a broader look at whether Ferguson police have a pattern of violating citizens’ rights. Neither investigation is nearing completion.

The shooting -- and the rioting that ensued after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, who is white -- is the sort of racially charged topic that the first black president has been reluctant to address.

It’s also one that will be hard to avoid in coming days. Even as Obama called on the nation to respect the grand jury’s finding and for restraint on the part of protesters and police, cable news networks showed on the other side of a split screen the images of smoke billowing over Ferguson.

The congressman who represents the St. Louis-area city said there will be more confrontations between police and protesters.

Special Prosecutor

“I’m sure there will be disturbances until justice is delivered in this community,” Representative William Lacy Clay, a Democrat, said today in a telephone interview.

Clay again urged Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a fellow Democrat, to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the shooting. He praised Obama’s handling of the matter and said he has been in touch daily with the White House.

“This administration has been exceptional in their response to this injustice,” Clay said. “We have walked through this process together, and I will not listen to voices that want to show division.”

Nixon’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Last night, protesters took to the streets of Ferguson, smashing car windows, burning police cruisers and looting businesses. Demonstrations took place in several other cities, including the nation’s capital, where several hundred people gathered outside the White House fence carrying signs and chanting, “Don’t shoot. Hands up.”

Chicago Trip

Obama’s schedule today takes him to his adopted hometown of Chicago, a one-hour flight from Ferguson, to talk about his plan to defer deportation for 5 million undocumented immigrants. Before leaving Washington, he was briefed on the situation by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Schultz said.

Asked if the president was disappointed by the violence last night, Schultz said, “we are all deeply worried and disappointed.”

“I would remind you the vast majority of protests in Missouri and around the country were peaceful and constructive,” Schultz told reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One.

Some black leaders say the Ferguson decision is an injustice that’s inextricably linked to the broader issue of racial disparity in the U.S. judicial system.

‘No Value’

“This decision seems to underscore an unwritten rule that black lives hold no value,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, said in a statement last night. “This is a frightening narrative for every parent and guardian of black and brown children, and another setback for race relations in America.”

Representative Greg Meeks, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a former prosecutor, today accused St. Louis County chief prosecutor Robert McCulloch of mishandling the case intentionally.

“It seems as though the prosecutor went into the grand jury wanting an outcome and that outcome being a no true bill,” Meeks, a New York Democrat, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Holder, who has visited Ferguson on Obama’s behalf, said in a statement last night that the federal investigation into the shooting remains active.

‘Racial Divide’

Clay said he plans to introduce legislation to address disparities in the criminal justice system and wants to “lead the conversation” on “how we get beyond this point and bridge the racial divide in this community.”

Clay said he didn’t have details yet on the measure, which would likely be unveiled after the next Congress convenes in January, when Republicans take control of the Senate.

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has visited Ferguson and is expected to run for president in 2016, published a commentary on Time.com calling for leadership from outside the political sphere.

“In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians,” Paul wrote. “Reforming criminal justice to make it racially blind is imperative, but that won’t lift up these young men from poverty. In fact, I don’t believe any law will.”

In general, Obama has tried to avoid focusing on matters of race, though it has occasionally proven inescapable.

‘Beer Summit’

He gave a speech on the topic during the presidential primaries in 2008 after tapes emerged of his former pastor making incendiary remarks from the pulpit.

Early in his presidency, Obama criticized the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates on charges of disorderly conduct, which were later dropped. That led to the “beer summit” between Obama, Gates, the arresting officer James Crowley and Vice President Joe Biden.

More recently in the case of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in February 2012, Obama said “this could have been my son.” Zimmerman was acquitted last year.

“We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I’ve witnessed that in my own life, and to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change,” Obama said last night.

“But what is also true is that there are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up,” he said.

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