We’re Americans. If something is wrong, we fix it. What, slavery is bad? We fixed that. What, women are fully functional beings? They can actually think in a rational way, and ought to be allowed to vote? We fixed that. They can even hold public office now, although the matter of equal pay for equal work is still a matter of contention. Alcohol is ruining America? We fixed that. We changed the Constitution. Prohibition fixed that problem, and when it really didn’t, we fixed that too. We changed the Constitution back. Then we took care of Hitler and the Japanese. We fixed that problem too, and then fixed the problem of Korea and then Vietnam and then Iraq. We didn’t fix those three? At least we tried – and we did end slavery, and when we discovered that didn’t fix everything, we passed the Fourteenth Amendment a few years after the war that ended slavery.
That fixed the lingering issues, as it defined citizenship more carefully and had that equal protection clause – everyone really was equal under the law, any law. Almost one hundred years later that fix – that one amendment – was used to justify the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hey, some fixes take longer than others. That amendment, establishing a guarantee of equal protection for everyone, and thus equal legal rights for everyone, also desegregated our public schools and legalized abortion and is now legalizing gay marriage. We fixed what the Founding Fathers hadn’t thought through. Everyone is endowed with those certain inalienable rights, or they’re not. There is no middle ground. There can be no exceptions. Exceptions fatally undermine the whole idea of America in the first place.
Okay, we fixed that, even if some never got over desegregation, and now the Republicans are in their fourth year of passing voting laws at the state level that make it hard for the people who don’t vote for them to ever vote again, and the current Supreme Court is fine with that, as that Voting Rights Act of 1965 is so old-fashioned now. Gays will always be an issue. Are they really people like the rest of us? And of course white cops keep shooting unarmed black kids quite dead, and walk away – no questions asked. The kid was mouthing off. He looked kind of dangerous. He gets shot dead. Shoot a pain-in-the-ass white kid dead and there’d be holy hell to pay. There is an obvious equal protection issue here. Are pain-in-the-ass black kids really people like the rest of us? It doesn’t seem so at the moment.
Americans fix things, that’s who we are, but it seems there’s no fixing Ferguson:
Protests unfolded in major cities across the nation Tuesday night as more than 2,000 National Guard troops and hundreds of police officers converged in the St. Louis area to guard against the vandalism, arson and looting that erupted in suburban Ferguson a day earlier.
Elsewhere, the demonstrations responding to a grand jury’s refusal to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, were largely peaceful. But as night wore on in Ferguson, the mood turned ugly.
A crowd of about 200 had gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department headquarters, where some chanted, “No justice, no peace.” At times they moved into the street and blocked traffic, only to be pushed back by police and National Guardsmen holding riot shields.
Yeah, it was a second night of this:
Shortly before 10 p.m., protesters marched to City Hall nearby, where two men banged on the front door, screaming, “We want answers!”
People started throwing bricks through the windows. They surrounded an empty police car parked in front, rocking it back and forth, smashing all its windows and setting it afire. Gunfire sounded; several Red Cross officials nearby said the police ammunition in the car had ignited.
Police fired tear gas, and protesters started choking, screaming, crying and trying to find their friends.
St. Louis County police arrived in armored vehicles and ordered people to the sidewalk, threatening to arrest anyone in the street. A teenage girl knelt in front of an armored vehicle. Officers picked her up, and the situation remained tense.
A teenage girl knelt in front of an armored vehicle? What’s this, Tiananmen Square? It wasn’t supposed to be the one teenager facing off against the government’s tanks:
Before the grand jury’s decision was announced, the police had made tactical decisions aimed at de-escalating the situation, a sign that with the attention of the world focused on how they conducted themselves, lessons had been learned from their response in August. Unlike in recent days, for instance, the police allowed the protesters to assemble on the street and block traffic outside the police station. …
Earlier in the day, the police seemed to have a strategy of staying out of sight. There was no line of officers in riot gear and no uniformed officers visible in the area around the Police Department, dampening the anger of some protesters.
And then there was. The state and local police weren’t going to show up in massive armored vehicles, in full battle gear, as an invincible army ready to bring on the pain to the locals, who worship strange gods and don’t even speak their language. That effort to deal with these local insurgents, by bonding with them or something, is now slowly being abandoned. These are not “our” people. At least they didn’t call in targeted airstrikes, or send in the drones with the Hellfire missiles to take out a car or two that might be carrying the leaders of the bad guys, and they didn’t use those old B-52 things to carpet-bomb selected neighborhoods. The Pentagon didn’t give state and local police departments everything that they weren’t using at the moment – but this is starting to feel like a war against an insurgency in a foreign country we don’t want to fall, a country we like just as we think it always has been.
This does seem like an insurgency that’s spreading:
In Washington, protesters lay down on a sidewalk outside police headquarters as if dead… Some had handwritten notes on their chests: “Black lives matter.”
There was a shocking moment at a demonstration in Minneapolis where a woman in a group blocking an intersection was run over by a car. The Star Tribune newspaper reported that the driver of the car honked at the protesters before knocking a few people onto the hood of the vehicle and apparently running over one of the woman’s legs. She was hospitalized with “very minor injuries.”
In Chicago, a few dozen protesters gathered Tuesday morning on a downtown street corner ahead of another protest at City Hall… About 200 members of the Black Youth Project staged a sit-in outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office Tuesday afternoon. They plan to be there for 28 hours.
Protesters in the New York area briefly blocked one of the entrances to the Lincoln Tunnel Tuesday evening but then headed off to the city’s West Side.
And at Union Square, about 400 people had gathered shortly after dark before breaking into groups of marchers. …
As of Tuesday evening, more than 130 protests had either occurred or were planned for Tuesday in more than 30 states, the District of Columbia and at least three other countries, according to information compiled by CNN from organizers, media reports, social media and a site set up to help organize protest efforts.
It was the same out here in Los Angeles:
Roving groups of protesters in downtown Los Angeles stopped traffic in multiple locations across downtown Los Angeles after rallying in large numbers to protest a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the death of an unarmed black man.
A group of about 100 protesters briefly crowded an overpass of the 101 Freeway off Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, hemmed in on both sides by police officers and police cruisers, according to Kerri Rivas, spokeswoman with the California Highway Patrol.
One woman had been detained on the overpass in a confrontation with police officers, Rivas said.
By about 9:45 p.m., the 101 Freeway had reopened, but traffic problems had migrated elsewhere. Motorists trying to escape the jam flooded onto side streets in downtown Los Angeles. As cars packed Cesar Chavez Boulevard, a small group of protesters lay down in an intersection and caused another traffic jam.
One man screamed at the police, who were directing traffic and trying to control the flow of the protesters.
“Want to kill someone? Kill me, not some innocent bystander!” screamed one protester.
Cesar Chavez Boulevard is the east end of Sunset Boulevard, down by Union Station and Chinatown. Maybe they shouldn’t have renamed it. Cesar Chavez thought migrant farm workers were people too. Bobby Kennedy met with him out here in a California, just before Bobby Kennedy was shot dead at the old Ambassador Hotel down on Wilshire Boulevard. That was in 1968, just after he won the California Democratic primary. Some things feel like war, a war against an insurgency, where the insurgents keep insisting it’s their country too.
This puts President Obama in an awkward position. Look at him. He looks like one of the insurgents. Hell, his middle name is Hussein. His elegant intelligence, and his unfailing calm and courtesy, and his Harvard law degree and all the rest, can’t change the color of his skin or the history that comes with that. Long ago James Baldwin said that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time” – and then he left for Paris and seldom returned. Obama is more than relatively conscious. Is he in a rage? He can’t be. He’s the president of all of us.
That’s why, on the second day of all of this, CNN noted this:
On Tuesday night in his hometown of Chicago, Obama tried to master a balancing act that has become all too familiar during his nearly six years in the White House, reflecting on the African-American experience while standing by the legal system. He offered comfort to those angered by the grand jury’s decision while identifying with the horror of looting and burning businesses in suburban St. Louis.
“If any part of the American community doesn’t feel welcomed or treated fairly, that’s something that puts all of us at risk,” Obama said.
But he added that “nothing of benefit results from destructive acts. For those who think that what happened in Ferguson is an excuse for violence, I do not have any sympathy for that.”
It was not quite the rhetoric of the transcendent political figure who spoke eloquently about race during his first campaign, nor was it the impassioned president who reacted so personally in the aftermath of Florida teenager Trayvon’s Martin’s death. Instead, Obama pledged to lead a national conversation on race and address the deep rooted belief in many communities of color “that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly.”
He came back to that Fourteenth Amendment thing again, that 1868 constitutional patch the fixed our system. He wants to fix things, and that does make him quite American. He does, however, know what doesn’t work:
His approach to Ferguson stands in contrast to remarks last year after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the 2012 shooting death of the 17-year-old Martin. At the time, Obama recounted his own experiences as a black man in deeply personal terms.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
He continued: “There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me – at least before I was a senator.”
He was more circumspect on Monday as the violence in Ferguson first heated up, saying the nation has made “enormous progress in race relations.”
“I’ve witnessed that in my own life, and to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change,” he said.
That was a nice thing to say, but Paul Waldman thinks that didn’t work either:
Seldom in Barack Obama’s presidency has he looked quite so impotent as he did last night, pleading from a podium in the White House for calm while the cable news split screens showed clouds of tear gas enveloping the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. He repeated the same themes as every time he has spoken about this subject – people have legitimate grievances but there’s no excuse for violence, we’ve come a long way but we have a ways to go, and so on. It never rang more hollow.
It’s just that there was no alternative:
What should he have said? Obama never actually promised to bind up the nation’s racial wounds – that was a hope others placed upon him, far too naively. Even before taking office, Obama found that no matter how hard he tried to be unthreatening, to incorporate different perspectives into his rhetoric, and to stress what Americans share, many of his opponents would never see him as anything but an agent of racial vengeance. No matter what he did, whether passing an economic stimulus or reforming health care, some would spin a story of race around it, one in which whites were under threat.
If anyone ever thought that with little more than the power of his example Obama could mitigate racial resentments, let alone fray the institutional ligaments of racism, they were quickly disabused of those ideas. His presidency has seen an extraordinary backlash against racial progress, from the Supreme Court to the statehouse, where affirmative action is dismantled, the Voting Rights Act is gutted, one Republican legislature after another passes laws to make it harder for people (mostly minorities) to vote, and conservatives are told again and again that they are the racial victims whose problems are the fault of the black president coming after them because of the color of their skin.
And when Obama even dipped a toe into the waters of racial controversy, it sparked an eruption of outrage – how dare he express solidarity with the black college professor accused of breaking into his own house – or with the parents of a black teen shot down by a vigilante wannabe? How dare he?
There’s no winning. He looks like one of the insurgents:
So there were no words that would have diffused people’s frustration, fear, and rage. There was nothing that could be said from the White House by this president or any other that would have made everything okay.
Healing is not going to come from words, and it won’t be delivered from above by the president. It will come from the creation of a system that produces justice, a system where police treat citizens with respect, where power is distributed equitably, where people can have a modicum of faith that their lives and those of their children are considered to have value.
Didn’t we take care of that back in 1868 or so? It seems not, or we’re still working on it, but Brian Beutler adds this:
The contrast between Obama’s approaches to the Brown and Martin cases has always been overstated. Bracket one poignant but contentious sentence – “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” – and his responses to the two killings no longer seem so dissimilar. Even without an explicit presidential statement of commiseration, the public dialogue surrounding Brown’s killing polarized along depressingly familiar lines. Obama’s most impassioned comments about Martin came only after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman, not before Zimmerman had been indicted.
We have now effectively reached the same point in the Michael Brown case. There is no verdict, because Darren Wilson – the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown – won’t be charged with a crime.
The Grand Jury’s decision has reignited protests in Ferguson, and political leaders of all levels, including Obama himself, are pleading for restraint – mostly from the protestors themselves, but also from those who’ve taken up arms in anticipation of looting and riots. At the same time, Obama says he’s “going to wait and see” how the public reacts to the news before deciding whether to visit Missouri.
But he should go regardless. This is Obama’s first opportunity (for lack of a better word) to use the bully pulpit to steer the national agenda in a positive direction since the slaughter at Newtown, Connecticut, and it’s the first time since he became a national figure that he’ll be able to address a racially charged issue without an election in his future to deter him.
Ah, Obama is finally free to fix this:
For the entirety of his presidency, and for much of his pre-presidency, Obama’s been too encumbered by a real but vague set of hindrances – his ambition, his temperament, an idealistic sense of a president’s significance to the country, and an acute awareness of his position in the country’s racial firmament – to speak about racial issues with the candor that his attorney general, Eric Holder, has exhibited.
Now he has a chance to fix that:
Martin’s killing was in some ways more racially fraught, or straightforwardly racial, than Brown’s. Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, wasn’t a police officer; Martin wasn’t suspected of a crime; and he was walking alone, in a predominantly white neighborhood. His killing sparked a debate about controversial gun laws, but his altercation with Zimmerman, the way the case was handled, and the verdict all spoke to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and to an undercurrent of white vigilantism in conservative parts of the country. In the end, the story was about a zealot who killed an innocent black kid and got away with it.
Some of these factors apply to Brown’s killing and some don’t. But the very complexities that distinguish Brown’s case from Martin’s – that Wilson is a cop; that Brown was shot and killed at a distance with his hands in the air, according to some witnesses; that Ferguson police essentially turned on the residents they are paid to serve; that the overwhelmingly black community is governed by overwhelmingly white public officials – are what make Ferguson such a thorny issue. They’re also the things that make it so urgent for the president, but particularly this president, to give them proper context.
Brown’s killing isn’t just about race, or local police procedure, or the militarization of police, but civil rights, a vast array of racial disparities in America, and the cardinal importance of the franchise, all of which are connected to one another. Obama is uniquely suited to trace those connections.
In short, Obama should get his ass to Ferguson, right now. Ezra Klein isn’t so sure about that:
Obama’s language didn’t soar tonight, just as it didn’t soar in his first set of remarks on Ferguson. And that’s because Obama can manage polarization on immigration in a way he can’t manage polarization on race.
President Obama might still decide to give a major speech about events in Ferguson. But it probably won’t be the speech many of his supporters want. When Obama gave the first Race Speech he was a unifying figure trying to win the Democratic nomination. Today he’s a divisive figure who needs to govern the whole country. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.
Brian Beutler would be disappointed, and Jesse Walker argues that the whole thing is pointless:
I watched an Obama speech tonight. The cable channels aired it in a split screen with footage from Ferguson, so as the president urged calm I could see a live feed of the country ignoring him. His comments were predictable and bland, but even if he’d given us the most stirring rhetoric of his career I can’t imagine that it would have made much difference. This is the news, not The West Wing. Words are cheap.
Julia Azari agrees:
There are a number of perspectives on crisis rhetoric and on the purposes of presidential speech, but one idea that drives at many of the key points is communication scholar David Zarefsky’s argument that presidential rhetoric has the power to “define political reality.” To quickly synthesize Zarefsky’s point with other work on presidential communication… this kind of communication has a few main purposes. These include putting a political situation in the context of the past, particularly our Constitutional heritage, and applying a useful and resonant metaphor to the situation that allows us to understand what caused the problem and what kinds of solutions are available. In other words, presidential speech can provide a common text for all citizens to understand a situation, and provide a sense of what the policy alternatives are, even if agreement among them remains elusive.
This is a tremendously difficult task. When non-white human beings have been historically denied full citizenship, how does anyone begin to forge a common understanding of an event that rings true across racial and ethnic lines? How can anyone transcend the polarized state of American politics?
How can words fix that? How can any of this be fixed once and for all? We’re Americans. If something is wrong, we fix it. But we’ve been kidding ourselves.