Civil Liberties

10 Takeaways From Obama's Ferguson Speech: Cops Should Not Be Militarized

The president says he understands the deeper problems. But what can he change?

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Everett Collection

In a White House press conference on Monday, President Obama told police and demonstrators in the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, to cool their passions and hard-nosed responses. He also said Congress should take a closer look at providing military equipment and training to local police forces which claim they are preparing for terrorists while using the equipment for domestic policing.

The president also said Americans need to understand that unequal treatment by society that perpetuates poverty and fewer economic prospects feeds into anger and rage, but he said those injustices are no excuse for inciting violence or looting. What follows are 10 excerpts from his remarks.

1. Most Protesters Were Peaceful

“It’s clear that the vast majority of people are peacefully protesting; what’s also clear is that a small minority of individuals are not. While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving in to that anger by looting, or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos. It undermines, rather than advancing justice.”

2. Police Must Defend Protesters’ Rights

“Let me also be clear that our constitutional rights to speak freely, to assemble and to report in the press must be vigilantly safeguarded, especially in moments like these. There’s no excuse for excessive force by police for any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully. Ours is a nation with laws, for the citizens who live under them, and for the citizens who enforce them.

3. Stop Fighting and Start Talking

“Let me call once again to seek some understanding rather than to holler at each other. Let’s seek to heal, rather than to wound each other. As Americans, we’ve got to use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment.”

4. Too Many Young Men Of Color Are Left Behind

“I’ve said this before, in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear. Through initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper, I’m personally committed to changing both perception and reality…but that requires that we build and not tear down, and that requires that we listen and not just shout.

"That’s how we’re going to move forward together… We’re going to have to hold tight to those values in the days ahead. That’s how we bring about justice. That’s how we bring about peace."

5. Local Police Shouldn’t Be Armed Military Forces

“I think one of the great things about the United States is our ability to maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement. That helps preserve our civil liberties. That helps ensure that the military is accountable to civilian direction. And that has to be preserved. After 9/11 I think understandably a lot of folks saw local communities that were ill-equipped for a potential catastrophic terrorist attack. I think people in Congress, people of good will, thought we’ve got to make sure that they get proper equipment to deal with threats that historically wouldn’t arise in local communities. And some of that’s been useful…

“Having said that, I think it’s probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they are purchasing is stuff that they actually need, because there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement. And we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions. And I think there will be some bipartisan interest in reexamining some of those programs.”

6. National Guard’s Role Should Be Limited 

“With respect to the National Guard… this was a state-activated National Guard, so it’s under the charge of the governor. So it’s not something that we initiated at the federal level. I spoke to [Gov.] Jay Nixon about this, expressed an interest in making sure, if in fact a National Guard is used, it is used in a limited and appropriate way. He described the support role that they would be providing to local law enforcement, and I will be watching over the next several days to assess whether it’s helping rather than hindering progress.”

7. Why Obama Can’t Go To Ferguson

“We’ve seen events in which there’s a big gulf between community perceptions and law enforcement perceptions around the country. This is not something new. It’s always tragic when it involves the death of someone so young. I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed, because, although these are issues of local jurisdiction, the DOJ works for me, and when they are conducting an investigation, they don’t look like I’m putting my thumbs on the scales one way or the other.

"So it’s hard for me to address a specific case, beyond making sure that it’s conducted in a way that’s transparent, where there’s accountability, where people can trust the process, hoping that as a consequence of a fair and just process, you end up with a fair and just outcome.”

8. Americans Must Understand the Historic Roots Of Rage

“But as I think I’ve said on some past occasions, part of the ongoing challenge of perfecting our union has involved dealing with communities that feel left behind, who as a consequence of tragic histories, often find themselves isolated, often find themselves without hope, without economic prospects. You have young men of color in many communities who are more likely to end up in jail, or in the criminal justice system than they are in a good job or in college. And part of my job that I can do, without any potential conflicts, is to get at those root causes. That’s a big project. It’s one we’ve been trying to carry out for a couple of centuries. And we’ve made extraordinary progress, but we have not made enough progress.”

9. We Must Address and Fix Institutional Racism

"Part of that process is also looking at our criminal justice system to make sure that it is upholding the basic principle of everybody’s equal before the law. And one of the things that we’ve looked at, during the course of investigating where we can make a difference, is there are patterns that start early. Young African American and Hispanic boys tend to get suspended from school at much higher rates than other kids, even when they’re in elementary school. They tend to have much more frequent interactions with the criminal justice system at an earlier age. Sentencing may be different. How trials are conducted may be different.

"And so, one of the things that we have done is include the Department of Justice in this conversation, under the banner of My Brother’s Keeper, to see where can we start working with local communities to inculcate more trust, most confidence in the criminal justice system."

10. Despite American Racism, Violence Is Inexcusable

“Sometimes there’s confusion around these issues and this dates back for decades. There are young black men that commit crime. And we can argue about why that happens, because of the poverty they were born into and the lack of opportunity, or the school systems that failed them, or what have you. But if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted, because every community has an interest in public safety. If you go into the African-American community or the Latino community, some of the folks who are most intent on making sure that criminals are dealt with are people who have been preyed upon by them.

“So this is not an argument that there isn’t real crime out there, and that law enforcement doesn’t have a difficult job, and that they have to be honored and respected for the danger and difficulty of law enforcement. But what is also true is that given the history of this country, where we can make progress in building up more confidence, more trust, making sure that our criminal justice system is acutely aware of the possibilities of disparities in treatment; there’s safeguards in place to avoid those disparities.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).