When the country’s first black president visited a historic black college, and just one day before the 50th anniversary of a key incident in African-American history, the March 6th Town Hall meeting may have had an original theme of progress and improvement and equality. One quick question introduced at Columbia, South Carolina’s Benedict College – Obama’s first visit to the state during his presidency – brought the near-1,000 attendees to silence, however. A student who identified himself as Michael asked:
Why did Eric Holder refuse to press charges?
The Dept. of Justice’s recent decline to pursue claims against former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, who killed unarmed teen Michael Brown in Aug. 2014, may not have been the only basis for the question, either. Attorney General Holder was present at the Town Hall himself.
The president didn’t yield the question to Holder, though, quickly making two points in response. “The fact is that the specific case of Officer Wilson and Michael Brown pertains to state and local law,” Obama said, and not to the federal level covered by DOJ.
Second, federal jurisdiction could only be applied from a civil rights perspective, and only if any wrongdoing were blatantly blunt. As a result, Obama said:
It is not unreasonable (for Holder) to determine there was uncertainty in the charges against Wilson.
DOJ’s recent decision doesn’t change the fact that Ferguson has a tainted history when it comes to race relations, though, the president pointed out, and which Holder’s investigation easily found.
Ferguson’s police department, in conjunction with the municipality, saw traffic stops – arrests – tickets – as revenue generators instead of service to the city.
In this for-profit policing, Ferguson regularly practiced racial profiling for years, Obama said DOJ learned, creating what he called “an oppressive and abusive situation.” While claims against Wilson won’t be pursued, the Missouri city must now answer directly for its evident discrimination, the president said, noting that DOJ provided evidence to Ferguson of regular racism in the city’s police and government offices. Ferguson will have to choose between entering agreement of correction or dispute the claim, according to Obama.
Are they going to enter into some sort of agreement with the Justice Department to fix what is clearly a broken and racially biased system?
This and similar circumstances in other parts of the country don’t mean the president is unhappy with all law enforcement.
They do it well, and they do it hard, and they do it heroically.
Obama will have to keep that same sentiment when in Selma, Alabama on Saturday. He’ll join civil rights leaders and other government officials for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the 1965 protest march that resulted in many participants being physically accosted by state and county police.
The March 6 event was the first time Obama has been in South Carolina since he won the state’s Jan. 2008 Democratic primary. Utah and South Dakota are the only remaining states he’s never visited as president.
Image: Nora Kravec, used with permission