Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Obama again wades into racially charged waters

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EDGARTOWN, Mass. -- For U.S. President Barack Obama, the intersection of race and the law has revealed both the pitfalls and the power of wading into these delicate matters as America's first black president.

Just months after being sworn in, Obama rapped police in Massachusetts for acting "stupidly" by arresting a black Harvard professor at his own home. After more details of the case were revealed, Obama was forced to clarify his statements and tried to make amends by hosting an awkward "beer summit" at the White House with the professor and police officer.

Four years later, unburdened by re-election, Obama spoke out passionately about the 2013 acquittal of the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen gunned down near his family's home in Florida. In unusually personal terms, Obama declared Martin "could have been me 35 years ago" and gave voice to the pain felt by the African-American community.

Now the president is again wading into a racially charged matter that has riveted the U.S., this time in Ferguson, Mo., the St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teen was shot and killed by a white police officer. The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown Saturday has been followed by violent clashes between police and protesters.

In his first in-person statement on the situation, Obama appealed Thursday for "peace and calm" in Ferguson and called for restraint by all involved.

"There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting," Obama said, speaking from the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard where he is in the midst of a two-week vacation.

"There's also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests... "

The president decided to speak on the matter after receiving a late-night briefing Wednesday from Attorney General Eric Holder on the violence that had escalated while Obama mingled with former president Bill Clinton, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and others at a birthday party.

Until then, Obama had held off to give local law enforcement a chance to quiet the situation, but by Wednesday night it was clear that wasn't happening, said a White House official who insisted on anonymity in order to describe the president's thinking.

There are conflicting reports about what led to Brown's death. Police say an officer encountered Brown and another man on the street, and one of the men assaulted the officer and struggled with him over his weapon. During the struggle, which spilled onto the street, Brown was shot multiple times, police said.

But a man who says he was with Brown during the shooting has given a much different account. Dorian Johnson said the officer grabbed his friend's neck, then tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. Johnson and another witness say Brown was on the street with his hands raised when the officer fired at him repeatedly.

Obama's carefully worded statement reflected the lack of clarity about what happened.

He urged police to be "open and transparent" as the investigation unfolds, but made no judgments about what led to Brown's death.

Obama avoided mentioning race in his statement, and he called on people to "remember that we're all part of one American family."

Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP civil rights organization, said Obama was right to tread carefully in his remarks given that emotions remain raw and the city of Ferguson remains on edge.

"The president as the chief executive has to be careful and thoughtful in his choice of words, particularly at a moment when there's unrest -- unrest in the streets, but also unrest in the American conscience," Brooks said.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2014 A17

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