The protests sweeping the country after a pair of controversial grand jury decisions are "necessary," President Obama said, adding that a “country's conscience has to be triggered by some inconvenience."
Thousands of people outraged by the lack of indictments in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two black men killed by unarmed police officers, have taken to the streets in recent days. Demonstrators have staged so-called "die-ins" in public spaces like New York City's Grand Central Terminal, while others have engaged in large-scale marches.
In an interview airing Monday with BET, Obama praised the efforts, pointing to "the old adage power concedes nothing without a fight."
But in some instances the protests turned violent, including over the weekend in Berkeley, where protestors grew bottles, rocks, and explosives at highway patrol officers.
When the protests "turn violent, they're counterproductive,” Obama said.
But generally, the president said, the protests are helping the country have a necessary conversation about race relations and police practices.
Obama said that he believed a lot of people who saw the video of Garner, a Staten Island man who died after being put in a chokehold by police officers, were "troubled" by the incident.
"Even if they haven't had the same experience themselves — even if they aren't African American or Latino, I think there are a lot of good, well-meaning people, I think there are a lot of police officers who might have looked at that and said that is a tragedy," Obama said.
At the same time, Obama said that as president he was "always responsible for what happens in this country" and that he wanted "to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Obama said that although many laws governing law enforcement were local, the federal government "can have an influence" and noted that "a lot of jurisdictions" received federal funding.
Last week, Obama met with police, civil rights leaders, and elected officials from Ferguson while announcing a series of administration steps to address concerns raised by the Brown case.
The president requested federal funding that could purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for police officers, something the family of slain 18-year-old Brown had lobbied for.
The White House is also moving to reform the way local police can get heavy military-style weapons and equipment, implementing new policies and training requirements from law enforcement that acquires supplies from the Pentagon.
And Obama is creating a new task force that will examine “how to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust,” a White House official said. The panel will be led by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson.
Obama also said the Justice Department was investigating potential civil rights violations in many of the high profile cases, adding that he thought that decision was proper in the case of Garner.
"Everybody should feel very confidently that this Justice Department is taking this seriously," Obama said.
The president rejected criticism his response to the crisis had been too timid, saying he had been "pretty explicit about my concern and being explicit about this being a systemic problem."
But, Obama said, he was constrained because he did not want to influence ongoing Justice Department investigations unfairly.
More broadly, Obama said that his hope was that eventually, black youths would be "given the same benefit of the doubt any other man would be given." He said that currently, "simply by virtue of color, you have less margin for error," and that unfairly punished young black boys who sometimes were "going to do stupid stuff.”
"I don't want them to be subjected to the kind of constant bias that makes them feel as if this is not their home," Obama said.