On November 24, 2014, President Obama betrayed the nation. Even as he went on national television to respond to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the looting and arson that had followed Brown’s shooting in August were being reprised, destroying businesses and livelihoods over the next several hours. Obama had one job and one job only in his address that day: to defend the workings of the criminal-justice system and the rule of law. Instead, he turned his talk into a primer on police racism and criminal-justice bias. In so doing, he perverted his role as the leader of all Americans and as the country’s most visible symbol of the primacy of the law.
Obama gestured wanly toward the need to respect the grand jury’s decision and to protest peacefully. "We are a nation built on the rule of law. And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make," he said. But his tone of voice and body language unmistakably conveyed his disagreement, if not disgust, with that decision. "There are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction," he said.
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Understandable, so long as one ignores the evidence presented to the grand jury. The testimony of a half-dozen black observers at the scene had demolished the early incendiary reports that Wilson attacked Brown in cold blood and shot Brown in the back when his hands were up. Those early witnesses who had claimed gratuitous brutality on Wilson’s part contradicted themselves and were, in turn, contradicted by the physical evidence and by other witnesses, who corroborated Wilson’s testimony that Brown had attacked him and had tried to grab his gun. (Minutes before, the hefty Brown had thuggishly robbed a diminutive shopkeeper of a box of cigarillos. Wilson had received a report of that robbery and a description of Brown before stopping him.)
Obama should have briefly reiterated the grounds for not indicting Wilson and applauded the decision as the product of a scrupulously thorough and fair process. He should have praised the jurors for their service and courage in following the evidence where it led them. And he should have concluded by noting that there is no fairer criminal-justice system in the world than the one we have in the United States.
Instead, Obama reprimanded local police officers in advance for an expected overreaction to the protests: "I also appeal to the law-enforcement officials in Ferguson and the region to show care and restraint in managing peaceful protests that may occur. . . . They need to work with the community, not against the community, to distinguish the handful of people who may use the grand jury’s decision as an excuse for violence . . . from the vast majority who just want their voices heard around legitimate issues in terms of how communities and law enforcement interact."
Such skepticism about the ability of the police to maintain the peace appropriately was unwarranted at the time and even more so in retrospect; the forces of law and order didn’t fire a single shot. Nor did they inflict injury, despite having been fired at themselves. Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, was under attack for days for having authorized a potential mobilization of the National Guard—as if the August rioting didn’t more than justify such a precaution. Any small-business owner facing another wave of violence would have been desperate for such protection and more. Though Nixon didn’t actually call up the Guard, his prophylactic declaration of a state of emergency proved prescient.
Obama left no doubt that he believed the narrative of the mainstream media and race activists about Ferguson. That narrative held that the shooting of Brown was a symbol of nationwide police misbehavior and that the August riots were an "understandable" reaction to widespread societal injustice. "The situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation. The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color." This distrust was justified, in Obama’s view. He reinvoked the "diversity" bromide about the racial composition of police forces, implying that white officers cannot fairly police black communities. Yet some of the most criticized law-enforcement bodies in recent years have, in fact, been majority black.
"We have made enormous progress in race relations," Obama conceded. "But what is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up. . . . The law too often feels like it’s being applied in a discriminatory fashion. . . . [T]hese are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down."
To claim that the laws are applied in a discriminatory fashion was a calumny, unsupported by evidence. For the president of the United States to put his imprimatur on such propaganda was bad enough; to do so following a verdict in so incendiary a case was grossly irresponsible. But such partiality followed the pattern of this administration in Ferguson and elsewhere, with Attorney General Eric Holder prematurely declaring the Ferguson police force in need of wholesale change and President Obama invoking Ferguson at the United Nations as a manifestation of America’s ethnic strife.
The wanton destruction that followed the grand jury’s decision was overdetermined. For weeks, the press had been salivating at the potential for black violence. The New York Times ran several stories a day, most on the front page, about such a prospect. Media coverage of racial tension portrayed black violence as customary, and riots as virtually a black entitlement.
The press dusted off hoary tropes about police stops and racism, echoing the anti-law-enforcement agitation and the crusade against "racial profiling" of the 1990s. The New York Times selected various features of Ferguson almost at random and declared them racist, simply by virtue of their being associated with the city where Michael Brown was killed. A similar conceit emerged regarding the grand-jury investigation: innocent or admirable aspects of the prosecutor’s management of the case, such as the quantity of evidence presented, were blasted as the product of a flawed or deliberately tainted process—so desperate were the activists to discredit the grand jury’s decision.
This kind of misinformation about the criminal-justice system and the police can only increase hatred of the police. That hatred, in turn, will heighten the chances of more Michael Browns attacking officers and getting shot themselves. Police officers in the tensest areas may back off of assertive policing. Such de-policing will leave thousands of law-abiding minority residents who fervently support the police ever more vulnerable to thugs.
Obama couldn’t have stopped November’s violence in Ferguson with his address to the nation. But in casting his lot with those who speciously impugn our criminal-justice system, he increased the likelihood of more such violence in the future.
This article is excerpted from Heather Mac Donald's The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, available from Encounter Books.