Shortly after news of the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer whose chokehold was responsible for the death of Eric Garner, President Obama took to the stage at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, and addressed the decision at the beginning of his remarks. As he did with the grand jury decision not to indict Michael Brown’s killer, the president was careful not to address the Garner killing in much detail, instead outlining the steps his administration took this week to address community policing issues.
As the first black president, Obama has had to walk a fine line with regard to race and policing, and his remarks this afternoon reflected that, no more vividly than in his description of the Garner killing:
“Some of you may have heard there was a decision that came out today by a grand jury not to indict police officers who had interacted with an individual named Eric Garner in New York City, all of which was caught on videotape.”
That’s certainly one way to put it. Kind of like how the lava “interacted” with Pompeii.
Even though the president took pains to empathize with police officers who have “an incredibly difficult job,” and who “are putting their lives at risk to protect us,” there will be those who slam him as being anti-cop, while folks who are pained by this latest in a long string of injustices may find his remarks tepid. The president said, “Right now unfortunately we are seeing too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly. In some cases those may be misconceptions, but in some cases that’s a reality.”
At this moment, those scales, between wrongly thinking things are unfair and things being unfair, don’t feel nearly as balanced as the president’s remarks make them sound. Feelings aside, though, the most important part of what the president said is that he keeps this promise: “We are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement.”
Hopefully, neither will the rest of us.
Update:At 7:36 pm, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will conduct a federal civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner:
Here’s a transcript of President Obama’s full remarks on Eric Garner (via email from The White House):
I hope you’ll allow me this indulgence before I get started talking about what we have accomplished and what we still have to accomplish — because one of the things about being President is news breaks, and it’s important for people to hear how I feel and how I’m thinking about some important issue that we face in this nation.
Some of you may have heard there was a decision that came out today by a grand jury not to indict police officers who had interacted with an individual with Eric Garner in New York City, all of which was caught on videotape and speaks to the larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year, and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.
And there’s going to be, I’m sure, additional statements by law enforcement. My tradition is not to remark on cases where there may still be an investigation. But I want everybody to understand that this week, in the wake of Ferguson, we initiated a task force whose job it is to come back to me with specific recommendations about how we strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color and minority communities that feel that bias is taking place; that we are going to take specific steps to improve the training and the work with state and local governments when it comes to policing in communities of color; that we are going to be scrupulous in investigating cases where we are concerned about the impartiality and accountability that’s taking place.
And as I said when I met with folks both from Ferguson and law enforcement and clergy and civil rights activists, I said this is an issue that we’ve been dealing with for too long and it’s time for us to make more progress than we’ve made. And I’m not interested in talk; I’m interested in action. And I am absolutely committed as President of the United States to making sure that we have a country in which everybody believes in the core principle that we are equal under the law. (Applause.)
So I just got off the phone with my Attorney General, Eric Holder. He will have more specific comments about the case in New York. But I want everybody to know here, as well as everybody who may be viewing my remarks here today, we are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement.
And I say that as somebody who believes that law enforcement has an incredibly difficult job; that every man or woman in uniform are putting their lives at risk to protect us; that they have the right to come home, just like we do from our jobs; that there’s real crime out there that they’ve got to tackle day in and day out — but that they’re only going to be able to do their job effectively if everybody has confidence in the system.
And right now, unfortunately, we are seeing too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly. And in some cases, those may be misperceptions; but in some cases, that’s a reality. And it is incumbent upon all of us, as Americans, regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem, and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem. This is an American problem. When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that’s a problem. And it’s my job as President to help solve it. (Applause.)