President Obama called for “reflection and understanding” after the “heartbreaking” killing of an unarmed black 18-year-old shot to death by police in the town of Ferguson, Mo., over the weekend.
In his first comments about a killing that has triggered riots in the St. Louis suburb, Obama acknowledged that the shooting of Michael Brown has “prompted strong passions” and urged people to have a discussion “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
The president's comments came after protestors and riot police clashed late Monday night in an area just blocks from the site of the shooting. Police officers shot tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of demonstrators who refused to disperse, according to multiple media reports.
Over the weekend, violent protests and looting stemming from the death led to more than 30 arrests on charges ranging from assault to burglary.
The president noted that the Department of Justice is investigating the shooting and said the federal government would “continue to direct resources to the case as needed.”
On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division would probe the fatal shooting, saying the incident “deserves a fulsome review.”
“At every step, we will work with the local investigators, who should be prepared to complete a thorough, fair investigation in their own right,” Holder said. “I will continue to receive regular updates on this matter in the coming days.”
Witnesses have offered conflicting accounts of Brown's killing. Police say the 18-year-old physically assaulted a police officer who confronted him and attempted to take the officer’s weapon. But a friend of Brown's told reporters that the officer shot the teenager, after they ignored his command to get off the sidewalk.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have called on the Justice Department to expand its investigation into the Brown shooting, asking the government to look for “any pattern or practice of police misconduct by the Ferguson Police Department.”
The lawmakers, including Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said there was “evidence of racial profiling by that department in the recent past” and that only the federal government had the resources and experience to “give this case the close scrutiny” it deserved.
Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have also called for a more through investigation by the federal government.
The president’s statement came just over a year since he discussed race relations in the country, shortly after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Obama said he'd been a victim or racial profiling and understood black Americans outraged by the verdict.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
Obama said that there were “very few African-American men” who hadn't experienced prejudice and urged those who did not understand the frustration “in a historical context.” The president also noted “a history of racial disparity in the application of our criminal laws."
Earlier this year, Obama announced the White House had obtained more than $200 million in philanthropic commitments targets toward young men of color as part of his “My Brother's Keeper” initiative. At the time, Obama said the program was launched partially in response to the “emotions and controversy” sparked by the Zimmerman verdict.
“These boys are a growing segment of our population,” Obama said. “They are our future workforce. When, generation after generation, they lag behind, our economy suffers. Our family structure suffers. Our civic life suffers. Cycles of hopelessness breed violence and mistrust. And our country is a little less than what we know it can be.”
— This story was updated at 5:17 p.m.