At long last, we've got some meaningful movement in the Michael Brown case: The local grand jury tasked with deciding whether to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson convened Wednesday. They'll be reviewing the available evidence to decide whether charges should be brought, and the high-profile and volatile nature of the case and its surrounding protests have brought along a VIP presence to Missouri — United States Attorney General Eric Holder, who wrote an op-ed on Ferguson and the Brown case in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which ran Wednesday.
Holder's words are basically the most significant federal comment on the case since President Obama himself spoke about Ferguson Monday. Obama's was a speech which provoked myriad reactions from different quarters of his supporters online, some defending his reluctance to rock the boat and the limits on his powers, with others feeling he should have offered more unqualified support to the Ferguson protesters.
Regardless of where you fall on that scale, Holder's op-ed discussed the specifics of the federal government's response in greater depth and detail than Obama did Monday, and it's worth your time. Holder arrived in St. Louis Wednesday morning, and will be the highest-ranking federal official to visit Ferguson since the protests erupted.
If there's one big difference between how Holder and Obama approached the subject of Ferguson and Michael Brown, it's probably be that Holder'd words are clearly addressed directly to the people of Ferguson, not the American public at large.
This may have been why some of Obama's supporters (though not all) were disappointed they didn't get a more assertive show of support — when he speaks, it's basically to the country and the whole world, and the wrong turn of phrase could inflame controversy.
Holder, however, isn't on such a prominent stage. Here are some highlights.
We understand the need for an independent investigation, and we hope that the independence and thoroughness of our investigation will bring some measure of calm to the tensions in Ferguson. In order to begin the healing process, however, we must first see an end to the acts of violence in the streets of Ferguson. Although these acts have been committed by a very small minority — and, in many cases, by individuals from outside Ferguson — they seriously undermine, rather than advance, the cause of justice. And they interrupt the deeper conversation that the legitimate demonstrators are trying to advance.
The Justice Department will defend the right of protesters to peacefully demonstrate and for the media to cover a story that must be told. But violence cannot be condoned. I urge the citizens of Ferguson who have been peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to join with law enforcement in condemning the actions of looters, vandals and others seeking to inflame tensions and sow discord.
Holder's distinction about out-of-towners igniting chaos within the Ferguson protests is very apt, and important for understanding the situation that's playing out on a near-nightly basis. On Tuesday night, Capt. Ron Johnson acknowledged the example of one protester from Austin, Texas who'd been arrested three times already, though the circumstances of those arrests are unclear, and some Ferguson protesters have taken it on themselves to physically block storefronts in an effort to prevent looting.
In a sense, Holder's call for the protesters to condemn the actions of looters and vandals could be slightly problematic — asking for condemnation from a mass of individual protesters sort of implies that they're tacitly supporting such chaos now, or haven't done enough to combat it.
But if directly confronting troublemakers in the heat of the moment isn't enough to tamp down that narrative, I'm not sure what could be said (or who would speak for all those people, frankly) to change the perception. The people looting are in fact victimizing those peaceful protesters in Ferguson that the militarized police forces have. It doesn't seem particularly fair to be asking even more of those people.
That said, Holder frames the discord aptly in his first paragraph. There's no burying the lede about what this is all about — Michael Brown, the 18-year-old black teen killed by Wilson on August 9.
At the core of these demonstrations is a demand for answers about the circumstances of this young man’s death and a broader concern about the state of our criminal justice system.
That may seem like a simple enough statement, but in the context of media coverage that's sometimes emphasized the dramatic and sensational — focusing on a relatively small amount of violent or lawless behavior in spite of the whole — it's a breath of fresh air. Holder explains that the federal government is being proactive in launching an independent investigation into Michael Brown's death, marshaling FBI investigators to help clarify what precisely took place.
Taken in total, Holder's essential message to the protesters is pretty clear: Don't worry, we know you don't trust local authorities to handle this properly, and we're paying attention. He ended the op-ed by offering the residents of Ferguson a pledge.
Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent. And beyond the investigation itself, we will work with the police, civil rights leaders, and members of the public to ensure that this tragedy can give rise to new understanding — and robust action — aimed at bridging persistent gaps between law enforcement officials and the communities we serve. Long after the events of Aug. 9 have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community.
Of course, if you want to know how Holder really feels about the discussion on race in America, his 2009 comments on the matter speak volumes — not even a year into his tenure as Attorney General, he voiced some disarming, candid sentiment, calling America "essentially a nation of cowards" when it comes to racial issues.
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