While President Barack Obama scolded those who use protesting the death of Michael Brown as a “cover for vandalism or looting,” he strongly criticized the Ferguson, Missouri, police department for a response to protesters that many have decried as an overreaction.
“When something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities,” Obama said Thursday as he took a break from his vacation to address the outrage in Missouri, in addition to U.S. military operations in Iraq.
“There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” the president said. “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”
Among the more than 50 people who have been arrested in Ferguson during four days of protests are a St. Louis alderman and journalists from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post.
“I know that many Americans have been deeply disturbed by the images we’ve seen in the heartland of our country as police have clashed with people protesting. Today, I’d like us all to take a step back and think about how we’re going to be moving forward,” Obama said. “Of course, it’s important to remember how this started. We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances. He was 18 years old, and his family will never hold Michael in their arms again.”
Obama expressed confidence in Missouri’s Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, calling the two-term governor “a good man and a fine governor.”
“He is going to be traveling to Ferguson,” Obama said. “I’m confident that working together, he’s going to be able to communicate his desire to make sure that justice is done and his desire to make sure that public safety is maintained in an appropriate way.”
Obama said he’s asked the Justice Department and FBI to conduct an independent investigation to find out what happened to Brown.
“The Department of Justice is also consulting with local authorities about ways that they can maintain public safety without restricting the right of peaceful protest and while avoiding unnecessary escalation,” the president said. “I made clear to the attorney general that we should do what is necessary to help determine exactly what happened and to see that justice is done.”
For the last five days, Brown’s friend and witness to his killing, 22-year-old Dorian Johnson, has been giving media interviews, telling a version of events that differs dramatically from the official account given by St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. Johnson said a police officer shot Brown multiple times while his arms were raised in surrender Saturday afternoon.
Authorities finally interviewed Johnson on Wednesday evening, St. Louis County Police Department spokesman Brian Schellman told The Huffington Post.
While Johnson’s attorney, Freeman Bosley Jr., former mayor of St. Louis, criticized the department for failing to interview his client, Schellman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the police department had made multiple efforts to speak to Johnson but Bosley had not returned their calls.
“Obviously, we’re not avoiding this guy,” he said. “This is the guy we have to talk to.”
Officials also were scheduled to meet Thursday with Brown’s mother.