COLUMBIA, S.C. — Racial discrimination from police in Ferguson, Missouri, was “oppressive and abusive,” President Barack Obama said Friday as he called for criminal justice reform as part of the modern struggle for civil rights.
“It turns out they weren’t just making it up. This was happening,” Obama said during a town hall at South Carolina’s Benedict College, the day before he prepared to commemorate a half-century since the historic civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama.
In his most expansive comments yet about the Justice Department’s report on bias against blacks in Ferguson, Obama said it was striking that investigators merely had to look at email sent by police officials to find evidence. He said the City of Ferguson now must make a decision about how to move forward.
“Are they going to enter into some sort of agreement with the Justice Department to fix what is clearly a broken and racially biased system?” Obama said.
A Justice Department investigation found patterns of racial profiling, bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement and court practices within the Ferguson Police Department. Ferguson city leaders are to meet with Justice Department officials in about two weeks to put forth an improvement plan.
The president himself was the subject of some of the racist emails from Ferguson police and municipal courts employees uncovered in the investigation. A 2008 email said Obama would not be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years,” while another depicted Obama as a chimpanzee.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who accompanied Obama on the trip, told reporters the federal government will “use all the power that we have to change the situation there,” including possibly dismantling the police force. “If that’s what’s necessary we’re prepared to do that,” Holder said.
Holder said surprised is not a strong enough word for his reaction to the report, which he said revealed “appalling” practices. He said other police departments should understand the intensity of feelings across the federal government in terms of making sure what’s transpired in Ferguson doesn’t happen elsewhere, although he called the Ferguson bias “an anomaly.” “That is not something that we’re going to tolerate,” Holder said.
The Justice Department this week also cleared Darren Wilson, the white former Ferguson police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, while on duty in a St. Louis suburb in August. Brown’s death prompted massive street protests last year and triggered the Justice Department investigations.
A questioner at the town hall held at the historically black college asked Obama why Holder filed no charges against Wilson. Obama replied that the standard for federal charges is very high and the officer is entitled to due process like anyone else. “We may never know what happened,” Obama said.
Although Obama said he didn’t think what happened in Ferguson was typical of the rest of the country, he added that it wasn’t an isolated incident, either.
He called for communities to work together to address tensions between police and residents without succumbing to cynical attitudes that say “this is never going to change, because everybody’s racist.”
“That’s not a good solution,” Obama said. “That’s not what the folks in Selma did.”
Obama’s comments came on the eve of the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when police beat scores of people who were marching from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to protest their lack of voting rights. The violent images broadcast on national television helped lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Selma is not just about commemorating the past, it’s about honoring the legends who helped change this country through your actions today, in the here and now,” Obama said at a town hall meeting. “Selma is now.”
The visit was Obama’s first to South Carolina as president. South Dakota and Utah are the only states he has not traveled to while in office.