WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — A Democratic lawmaker from Missouri doesn’t believe President Barack Obama needs to visit Ferguson as violent protests over the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer enters its second week.
Despite some critics saying that Obama needs to visit the St. Louis suburb, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., believes it would not help.
“I don’t think the president needs to come to Ferguson,” Cleaver told MSNBC. “It adds another distortion. We don’t need that now, and we don’t need any more people coming into Ferguson to help the poor people out during this time of trouble. What we need is a sense of calm and anything other than that is going to be dangerous.”
Obama said Monday that Attorney General Eric Holder will travel to Ferguson Wednesday to meet with FBI and other officials carrying out an independent federal investigation into Brown’s death. The 18-year-old Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.
Since that time, violent protests have flared up in the Missouri town as police have used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters. Cleaver said that Ferguson more resembles battle-scarred Iraq.
“Ferguson resembles Fallujah more than it does Ferguson,” Cleaver explained to MSNBC. “Right now we have a community that has been essentially left behind in the terms of racial progress and all you have to do is look at the demographics and look at the positions people hold in the community. You’d have to understand that to understand the anger that the world is now seeing all day and all evening with the people of Ferguson.”
Cleaver added that Ferguson needs to create a climate in order for federal officials to properly investigate Brown’s death.
“What we got to do now is realize that we won’t be able to get a thorough investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI until we can create a climate for that investigation and what’s happening now is damaging, or interfering, with what needs to be done,” Cleaver told MSNBC. “We really will see the diminishing impact of the hoodlums who pushed themselves into this situation in Ferguson when the attorney general and the Justice Department and the FBI takes center stage, instead of having the chief of police of Ferguson.”
In his remarks on Monday, Obama urged a re-examination of programs that have equipped civilian law enforcement departments with military gear from the Pentagon.
Amid video images of well-armed police confronting protesters with combat weapons and other surplus military equipment, Obama said it would be useful to review how local law enforcement agencies have used federal grants that permit them to obtain heavier armaments.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “That would be contrary to our traditions.”
Obama said the vast majority of protesters in the St. Louis suburb were peaceful, but said that a small minority was undermining justice for Brown.
The initial police reaction to the protests drew attention to the militarization of local police departments, with critics arguing that the heavily-armed police presence only fueled the tensions. Holder and several lawmakers have suggested that the practice of supplying police with such military surplus be reconsidered. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union in June said police agencies had become “excessively militarized,” with officers using training and equipment designed for the battlefield on city streets.
Obama said he also spoke to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon about Nixon’s deployment of National Guard units to help secure Ferguson, urging the governor to ensure that the guard be used in a “limited and appropriate way.”
“I’ll be watching over the next several days, to assess whether, in fact, it’s helping rather than hindering progress in Ferguson,” he said.
Pausing briefly in the middle of his summer vacation, Obama expressed sympathy for the “passions and anger” sparked by Brown’s death. But he said giving in to that anger through looting and attacks on police only stirs tensions and leads to further chaos. He said overcoming the mistrust endemic between many communities and their local police would require Americans to “listen and not just shout.”
“That’s how we’re going to move forward together, by trying to unite each other and understand each other and not simply divide ourselves from one another,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
Weighing his words carefully, Obama said it was clear that disparities in how blacks and whites are treated and sentenced must be addressed, calling for more safeguards and training to prevent missteps. At the same time, he acknowledged the difficult situation that police officers sometimes face.
“There are young black men that commit crime. We can argue about why that happened — because the poverty they were born into or the school systems that failed them or what have you— but if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted,” Obama said. “Because every community has an interest in public safety.”
Results of an independent autopsy released Monday by Brown’s family determined that Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head.
Obama’s remarks on the crisis were the first since the situation in Ferguson escalated over the weekend, with Nixon, the Missouri governor, ordering a midnight curfew for Ferguson and ordering the National Guard to help restore order. Nixon lifted that curfew on Monday, but tensions remained high the morning after police once again deployed tear gas in response to what they said were reports of gunfire, looting and vandalism by protesters.
Obama weighed in on the crisis during a brief break in his annual summer vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, where the president was spending two weeks with his family while juggling multiple crises in the U.S. and overseas. Obama returned to the White House late Monday and planned to return to the Massachusetts island on Tuesday. His brief return to Washington had been announced by the White House before the standoff in Ferguson began.
More than 30 protesters were arrested late Monday night into early Tuesday morning in Ferguson.
(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)