Attorney General Eric Holder was the first member of President Barack Obama's administration to visit Ferguson, Missouri since unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown's shooting death by a white police officer, Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, which resulted in violent protests and clashes between the black community and the police and general unrest from the racial charged situation. Holder came to speak to the community and law enforcement officials on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 where he delivered speeches Florissant Valley Community College and the St. Louis FBI Field Office.
Holder as the first African-American attorney general brought a more understanding perspective to the black community having experienced racial discrimination himself from police officers. Speaking to the black community at Florissant Valley Community College, Holder declared; "I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man. I've confronted this myself."
The attorney general started his speech by expressing that racial tension is an issue in American history that although sometimes dormant is not completely resolved. Holder explained; "The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now. The world is watching because the issues raised by the shooting of Michael Brown predate this incident. This is something that has a history to it, and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson."
Holder described his own experience being confronted by the police in a racially charged incident, which as the attorney general pointed out happened not too long along when he was already working at the Justice Department. Holder recounted how on the way to a movie in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. a; "Police car comes driving up, flashes his lights, yells, 'Where you going? Hold it. Now my cousin started mouthing off. I'm like, 'This is not where we want to go. Keep quiet…. At the time that [the police officer] stopped me, I was a federal prosecutor. I wasn't a kid. I was a federal prosecutor. I worked at the United States Department of Justice." Holder sympathized that he understands how it feels the anger associated with the incident; "I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me."
Later Holder spoke at the St. Louis FBI Field Office where he met with "local FBI agents and justice department personnel" to discuss the case. Holder discussed the reason he is visiting, the federal investigation into the shooting to see if there were "violations of federal, criminal civil rights statutes." Holder stated the main point of the trip is to calm the community down; "My hope also is… by expressing the importance of the way in which this investigation is going, that hopefully will have a calming influence on the area, if people know that a federal, thorough investigation is being done--is being manned by these very capable people."
During his Ferguson visit Holder also met with Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon appointed Johnson and the Missouri Highway Patrol on Thursday, Aug. 14 to oversee "security for the community" and as Breibart News reports he is known to "bring a healing touch to the community." Holder had only warm words for Johnson telling him; "My man, you are the man….You're making a real difference."
On Saturday Aug. 9, the police confronted Michael Brown, 18 and his friend suspecting Brown of having just robbed cigars from a convenience store. After what was a brief altercation, Wilson shot Brown from his police car and outside of it, a total of six times, Brown was an unarmed at the time. Ferguson's black community, which is in a majority felt the shooting was racially motivated and after a candlight vigil on Sunday Aug. 10, protests turn violent and vandalism and looting ensued. Protests continued on Monday, Aug. 11 and both the police headquarters and the FBI announced it will also investigate the shooting. Evening protests continued to be violent and the police confronted the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets.
President Obama released his first statement on the shooting Tuesday, Aug. 12 writing; "The death of Michael Brown is heartbreaking, and Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to his family and his community at this very difficult time." Obama cautioned about the reactions of both protesters and the police in the aftermath; "I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding. We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds."
The president's statement did nothing to calm Ferguson's protests and they continue for the third night. The Justice Department first announced their investigation into possible civil rights violations on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, but protests again turned violent at night with police using tear gas and arresting 16 people including some reporters covering the story.
On Thursday, Aug. 14 President Obama spoke to the nation from Martha's Vineyard where he was vacationing about the violent protest, saying; "Now's the time for healing. Now's the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson….We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds." At the press conference the president chided both the African American protesters and the police, stating; "I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson," Obama said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. "There is never excuse for violence against the police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. ...There is also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail."
The St. Louis County police department released Darren Wilson's name as the officer who shot Brown on Friday, Aug. 15 which only made the protests more violent and with them throwing rocks at the police and the police responding with tear gas. The violence prompted Gov. Nixon to declare at State of Emergency on Saturday, Aug. 16 and a midnight curfew however, the clashes continued at night. Sunday night, Aug. 17 experienced the worst protest with demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails and shooting at the police, looting and "attempting" to block roads after the autopsy report revealed that Brown had been shot six times.
The worsening violence both prompted Gov. Nixon on Monday, Aug. 18 to call in the National Guard, while he lifted the ignored curfews. Holder issued statement announcing that a federal autopsy was done and promising that "The full resources of the Department of Justice are being committed to our federal civil rights investigation into the death of Michael Brown. During the day today, more than 40 FBI agents continued their canvassing of the neighborhood where Michael Brown was shot."
President Obama also delivered a statement on the unrest, his caution on using the National Guard and announcing Holder's trip to Ferguson; "The attorney general himself will be travelling to Ferguson on Wednesday to meet with the FBI agents and DOJ personnel conducting the federal criminal investigation and he will receive an update from them on their progress. He will also be meeting with other leaders in the community who's support is so critical to bringing about peace and calm in Ferguson."
After the protests reached a peak in the violence and number of arrests on Monday night, the protests began calming down as the week progress Wednesday evening, Aug. 20 into Thursday morning was the first evening that protests were "calm," with Gov. Nixon began withdrawing the National Guard on Thursday afternoon. The quieter and more peaceful atmosphere might have had to do with the effect of Holder's comforting, compassionate and comprehending words and visit.
Statement by President Barack Obama, Aug. 18, 2014
Statement by the President Barack Obama, Aug. 14, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.