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Obama appeals for calm from protesters, law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2014

Attempting to quell the ongoing turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama called Monday for protesters and law enforcement to find a peaceful way forward after demonstrations over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager that have been marred with images of violence and military-style force in the streets.

Mr. Obama, who interrupted his summer vacation and received White House briefings on the racially charged clashes, was careful to prod both the protesters and the law enforcement officials deployed there in his most extensive remarks thus far on the unfolding events.

He also announced that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. would travel to the area Wednesday to meet with officials investigating the incident as a potential federal civil rights case.

As the situation developed quickly Monday, Gov. Jay Nixon deployed the National Guard to the region and an independent autopsy report showed that 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot at least six times Aug. 9.

A subdued Mr. Obama, framing his words carefully and often looking down at the lectern as he spoke, said it is clear that the vast majority of protesters responding to the shooting death of Mr. Brown are peaceful and he understands the passions and anger that exist, but actions by a small minority are undermining the broader cause.

"Giving in to that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only ... serves to raise tensions and stir chaos," he said. "It undermines rather than advancing justice."

Mr. Obama also said the public's constitutional right to speak freely, to assemble and to report in the press "must be vigilantly safeguarded, especially in moments like these."

"There's no excuse for excessive force by police or any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully," he said. "Ours is a nation of laws — for the citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them."

Mr. Obama made his remarks hours after he was briefed on the situation by Mr. Holder, whose Justice Department will conduct its own autopsy at the request of the Brown family in addition to the initial one performed by the local medical examiner's office and the independent one released Monday.

In his own statement, Mr. Holder similarly called for acts of violence in the streets to stop and encouraged peaceful protesters to join law enforcement in condemning the actions of "looters and others seeking to inflame tensions."

He also pleaded for patience, saying the "selective release of sensitive information" about the case has been troubling.

"No matter how others pursue their own separate inquiries, the Justice Department is resolved to preserve the integrity of its investigation," he said. "This is a critical step in restoring trust between law enforcement and the community, not just in Ferguson, but beyond."

Results of an autopsy performed under the auspices of the Brown family revealed that the teen was shot at least six times, including twice in the head, but forensic examiners said there was no evidence of a struggle.

The bullets all entered Mr. Brown from the front, undermining some of the earliest claims by protesters arguing that the shooting was unjustified — that the policeman shot a fleeing man in the back.

Attorneys for the family said the independent examination was necessary because not enough details had been released and they didn't trust the state to do a proper job. They also said a bullet wound to the arm could indicate Mr. Brown's back was turned.

Family attorney Benjamin Crump said the family would not release copies of the report.

Preliminary results from an autopsy performed by the St. Louis County medical examiner's office showed Mr. Brown died of gunshot wounds.

Mr. Nixon, who spoke with Mr. Obama on Monday, ordered the deployment of the National Guard to the St. Louis suburb in an attempt to de-escalate the situation. He also lifted a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew that began Saturday night.

Many of the protesters ignored the curfew, and the restrictions did not prevent angry standoffs with police.

Several black groups such as the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party called for calm Monday. They asked specifically that protesters clear the streets at sunset as the National Guard arrived — a state move that the groups nevertheless condemned.

State officials and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating the shooting, and more than 40 FBI agents are in Ferguson interviewing witnesses. Some witnesses said Mr. Brown had his hands up and was surrendering to authorities when he was shot.

Some in the community have called for the officer who shot Mr. Brown, Darren Wilson, to be charged with murder.

Though accounts of the circumstances that led up to the shooting have been conflicting, the image of a young black man being shot to death by a white police officer has stoked racial tensions in the largely black suburb of Ferguson and across the country.

Mr. Obama tried Monday to grapple a bit with the broader questions over race that the shooting had exposed when asked whether he felt he could do more personally for communities like Ferguson where such tensions between residents and local law enforcement might be simmering beneath the surface.

The president said helping communities with such tensions always has been an issue for the country. Giving a nod to all sides of the thorny issue, he said young minority men in some communities are more likely to end up in jail than they are in a good job or college, but regardless of the reasons why they get there, they need to be prosecuted if they commit a crime.

"What is also true is that given the history of this country, where we can make progress in building up more confidence, more trust, making sure that our criminal justice system is acutely aware of the possibilities of disparities in treatment, there are safeguards in place to avoid those disparities, where training and assistance is provided to local law enforcement who may just need more information in order to avoid potential disparity," he said.

Police said they are trying to show more restraint after coming under heavy criticism for the use of military-style force in the streets and efforts to frame Mr. Brown as a villain. Police over the weekend released video footage suggesting that Mr. Brown robbed a convenience store just before he was confronted by Officer Wilson.

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