News Violence

Obama Responds to Ferguson Unrest as Advocates Decry Police Violence (Updated)

Emily Crockett

Obama said that there is no excuse for violence against police or for vandalism and looting, but that there is also no excuse for using excessive force against peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment rights.

UPDATE, August 15, 10:07 a.m.: On Friday, the Ferguson, Missouri, police department named Darren Wilson as the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown nearly one week ago.

Read more of our coverage related to recent events in Ferguson here.

President Obama on Thursday said that now is the time for “peace and calm” in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, where the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer the department has not yet identified, has sparked protests and violent police response. 

Obama said that there is no excuse for violence against police or for vandalism and looting, but that there is also no excuse for using excessive force against peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment rights. 

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Many commentators on Twitter were left cold by the president’s remarks, saying they were too timid and failed to properly name the problems on the ground:

Others said that if Obama was overly careful, it was because he feared backlash for speaking about racial issues:

The president also referred to police interfering with the press: “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs,” he said. While President Obama didn’t mention the incident specifically, he was likely referring to the Wednesday arrest of Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly and Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery as police were clearing a McDonald’s that journalists used as a home base. Lowery wrote that he was slammed up against a Coke dispenser after officers judged he was taking too long to pack up and leave, and Reilly said that an officer refused to identify himself, purposefully smacked Reilly’s head against a window, and sarcastically apologized. The Huffington Post Washington bureau chief called the incident a false arrest and a violation of press freedoms.

The highly militarized local police force has been criticized for using excessive force against largely peaceful protesters as well as journalists. While reports of protesters throwing Molotov cocktails and looting have grabbed headlines, on-the-ground reports indicate that most protesters have been peaceful, that the police response is disproportionate, and that the protesters didn’t start the violence. Video and photos have been circulating online of police shooting flash-bang grenades at protesters holding their hands in the air, firing tear gas rounds at people attempting to flee, using a deafening sonic weapon, injuring protesters with rubber bullets, and firing tear gas at an Al Jazeera camera crew. Multiple agencies with a rotating cast of commanders are in charge, causing doubts that the police can be held accountable or controlled. 

Advocates have also pointed out that the violence in Ferguson, and police violence against young Black men in general, is a reproductive justice issue because it robs women of color the chance to raise their children in peace. Black mothers feel they have to protect their sons from the police, advocates say, and their fear and grief grows with every new report of an unarmed young Black man being killed by law enforcement officers.

Expectant mothers themselves can also be endangered by police violence. Another video from Ferguson appears to show police officers slamming a woman who is six-months pregnant to the ground, while bystanders protest and she says that she can’t lie on her stomach. And while the link isn’t definitive, studies have suggested that tear gas can cause miscarriages. 

Activists are organizing “national moment of silence” vigils across the country on Thursday evening to protest excessive police force and honor victims of brutality. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a Washington Post reporter, Wesley Lowery, who was arrested in Ferguson earlier this week. We regret the error.

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