The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Wesley Lowery

The Washington Post

Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for The Washington Post and the author of They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement. In August 2014, Lowery was arrested in Ferguson, Mo. while covering the mass demonstrations that erupted in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer.

Brown's death was a turning point, says Lowery, one that took the anger and frustration inside the black community about police brutality and transformed it into "a sustained societal and social movement." Ferguson also helped confirm the belief among many protesters that although Barack Obama was the nation's first black president, he could not heal America's deep racial divides.

"They understand that he was never the silver bullet," Lowery says. "He was never the knight in shining armor who was going to vanquish 300 years of history."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Oct. 28, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

So Obama comes out, makes a statement. Some people felt he put a foot in his mouth. He's amazed about the response. He knew he was a black president. It was very difficult for him to take a stand on this issue, which is very close to his heart. And yet he's in a quandary of exactly what to do. So lay the groundwork. What happened--the Gates arrest, what the president says, and why that caused a bit of a ruckus.

Of course. You have Henry Louis Gates [Jr.], one of the most prominent and esteemed black academics and researchers in the nation. He was returning to his home, gets himself locked out, and his cab driver [is] helping him get inside. And a police officer arrives, and they begin having, you know, they have this verbal altercation of sorts. And they're going back and forth with this question of, you know, should he be there, is this his house, what's happening? And at one point, he ends up getting detained by this officer.

This is one of the first things in the Obama administration, one of the first flashpoints of race during the Obama administration, where, for the moment, we are all discussing, is this something that is just a misunderstanding between two people? Is this something that's a bit of racial profiling? Is this something that's deliberate? Is it something that's not? And it presents one of the first opportunities for the president to kind of insert himself in this conversation.

What was interesting is that even prior to the Henry Louis Gates incident, you had had the death of Oscar Grant in Oakland, which kind of slid in right before the Obama administration happened. He's killed on New Year's Day 2009, and it gets almost completely lost. It's a Ferguson-esqe incident. There are massive protests at times that turn violent, and people are being arrested. But it's January 2009; we're all popping champagne for the New Year and getting ready for the inauguration. It kind of fell into that black hole, news hole, and people didn't really pay attention to it.

But it should have in some ways served as a warning, right, that these tensions were existing, that that was the playing field. Then what we see not long after that is the Henry Louis Gates incident, and in that incident, you watched the president attempt to kind of play facilitator in chief. He attempts to kind of deal with this with frank talk--you know, the police officer was kind of stupid and shouldn't have done this thing. The problem was the nation wasn't prepared to hear that from a president, right?

I think President Obama underestimated how inflamed people--white people--would be by hearing the president of the United States say something that perhaps wasn't a full-throated endorsement of any police action and every police action, this idea that there was some type of nuance to the situation. People weren't ready to hear it.

Because he's a black president.

Correct. Because he was saying something that perhaps a white president would have not said. The idea that the police shouldn't have acted this way and that this esteemed black person shouldn't have--that was something that we probably wouldn't have heard from other presidents. Other presidents might not even have been asked the question or asked to weigh in on it, right?

So it speaks to the dual--the trap that President Obama found himself in. As his very nature as a black president, he was going to be asked about these things and expected to comment on them, but he's in this complete trap, because no matter what he says, he's going to inflame half of the country either. He's not going to support this professor and validate the experiences that so many black Americans saw and could relate to, or he's going to validate those experiences and people are going to say: "Look, here he is, race-baiting already. He's the black president; he's not all of our president."

So the "beer summit": You look at that, and you think what?

Well, we think back to the beer summit now, and you just see how futile it was in so many ways. It's this idea that the black president could be the person to facilitate this long-needed conversation on race. But the reality is, what we in the nation need on race is not a conversation. Never has been, right?

That is what the beer summit in so many ways further exposed and underscored ... was that the black president was actually one of the least equipped or positioned person to facilitate this conversation, because his very presence or involvement in one of these issues or one of these flare-ups would only further politicize it. It took it from a place where perhaps we could talk about this soberly and with nuance, to, well, Obama's involved, so half the country has to hate it, and half the country has to love it.

How does Obama take it? Some will say that from that point on, he was hesitant to even deal with the issue.

I think it clearly taught a lesson to the president that he wasn't going to be able to take his two students from the college class who disagreed and sit them down and facilitate a debate between them, and everyone at the end comes out respecting the other, right? It showed in many ways the limitations of the black president, which in many ways, I think, as it relates to issues of race and justice, has been one of the primary flashpoints of the last eight years, and frankly one of the primary flashpoints of the 300 years of America.

What we learned through the Obama years is the limitations of a black president, right? We had to have a black president to realize all of the ways that that would not solve all of the problems, and that his very presence would be incapable. He could never have been this transformational figure that forced a conversation that we weren't having otherwise. His presence did prompt many conversations we weren't having otherwise, but he was never going to be able to be Mr. Rogers for us, you know, and sit us all down and figure it out.

But this was the promise. The promise was no red America, no blue America. There's only the United States of America. There's no black America; there's no white America. Was that just naive?

Well, I think it was. I think it cuts in two ways. It was the promise, but when you go back and listen to the early Obama speeches, when you listen to election night 2008 and you listen to the DNC speech in 2008, the promise was never--I think we projected the promise onto him, right? You know, the bill of particulars being sold to us by Barack Obama, Sen. Barack Obama at the time, was for a world in which there was not a red America and a blue America, for a world in which we could soar to greater heights and do bigger things, right?

But he actually explicitly states in his election night speech that this is not about me; I'm not the end-all, be-all on this; that I won't be able to fix all these problems and solve all these things. In many ways, it was extremely prescient. That has been remarkably true. In many ways, it's the great irony of the Obama presidency. As someone who came on the mandate of changing Washington as we know it, someone who came on the mandate of ending this gridlock and this polarization, by his very presence and by his very humanity, who he was, the color of his skin, the sound of his name, forced more polarization and gridlock than we had seen in the eight years prior. ...

Let's talk about Ferguson. When you get on the ground, what do you find?

Ferguson, Mo., is a suburb of St. Louis. Very often people who haven't been there foresee it almost as this ghetto, as a hood, right? Ferguson is a suburb with old historic homes and a trickling water fountain next to City Hall. It's the kind of city that once was almost all white, but as you've seen more migration out of the city of St. Louis has become increasingly more black, and promoting some of its white residents to move further out of the city into the second- and third- and fourth-ring suburbs.

It's a place that's socioeconomically diverse. You have extremely well-off people in Ferguson, and you have people who are struggling to get by of multiple races, of black and of white. It's a city that in all ways is kind of a middle-class suburb, and a lot of people who have moved themselves out of the city and have a front yard with a basketball hoop in it might still be working two jobs so their kids could come to this school district, so the kids could live in this environment and not be in the city.

But it was also a place where, you know, the demographics of the city had changed. It had gone from being an almost exclusively white city to almost an exclusively black city. The demographics of the city itself, of its public services, had not changed. This was a city that still had almost had an entirely white cast of elected officials, a city that had an almost entirely white police [force], and a city that had begun, like many of those cities in north-county St. Louis, had begun very aggressively using speeding tickets, fines, fees and warrants as a means of propping up the revenue stream of the city itself. As the tax base had retracted a bit during the recession and afterward, [Ferguson] had begun very aggressively delving out speeding tickets, traffic tickets, fines and fees for regulations to the extent the Department of Justice would later conclude that it was a tax on these relatively poor and middle-class residents; that at one point, the point when Michael Brown is killed, there were more active warrants in the city of Ferguson than there are people. And these were warrants that are triggered by people getting a speeding ticket, and your registration's out, so they're stacking tickets. And then if you didn't pay them in, you know, two weeks, three weeks, they'd issue an arrest warrant for you.

What that meant was that most people here were at all times dealing with the reality that the next interaction with the police could ruin their life. They've got an active warrant out for a speeding ticket they didn't pay, and now if they get pulled over, they're going to be arrested and taken to jail and maybe kept there overnight, which means they might miss work, and now they might lose their jobs. And we've heard story after story of people living there.

This was very much the backdrop and the reality of Ferguson, Mo., prior to this. You have a kind of white ruling class--your mayors, your city council members, your police officers--who are living in Smallville, right? They have a great experience; they love Ferguson; they're happy to live in this place. Then you had a much larger portion of your residents who felt very much oppressed by the police force; that they were being harassed, they were being pulled over. And that's before you even get into issues and allegations of brutality or rough arrests. And there certainly were those kind of allegations as well.

And then that leads us to Aug. 9, when Michael Brown is killed, right, the most litigated police shooting of our time, you know, going back to Rodney King. But here you have a young man who the week before has finished his high school degree, who the next week is supposed to be going off to a trade college, who that morning is with a friend, walks into a liquor store and commits what appears from the video we see to be a robbery, steals some Swisher Sweets cigarillos, which most people use to smoke weed, and leaves, and minutes later is confronted by a police officer, by police officer Darren Wilson. The two of them have certainly some type of back-and-forth, an interaction at the car. Depending on which witnesses you believe, either Michael Brown walked up to the car or Darren Wilson reached his arm out of the car and grabbed Michael Brown. That kind of led to a tussle, and at some point, Darren Wilson pulled his gun, fired a shot that hit Michael Brown's hand, and Michael Brown ran off.

From here, you have your divergent stories, your divergent narratives, this question of what exactly happened. We have Darren Wilson getting out of his vehicle, Michael Brown at some point stopping and turning back around to face him. Did Michael Brown begin walking back toward Darren Wilson? Did he charge Darren Wilson? Were his hands up? Were they down? Were they in the middle?

What we know is that Darren Wilson ended up emptying his clip, killing Michael Brown, saying that the boy had been charging him, that the young man had been charging him. And then afterward, because those moments are litigated and litigated and litigated--in many ways, I actually think that that litigation made us miss a lot of the bigger story in Ferguson.

The anger that swells in the street is not just about the shooting, although people are very angry. An 18-year-old boy is dead. But they're angry because an 18-year-old boy is dead in the street, and his body sits there for an hour, for two hours, for three hours, for four hours. It's four and a half hours before Michael Brown's body is removed. And all this time, he's laying there, blood trickling down the street, in the middle of high-rise apartments. Everyone is looking out their window saying: "Is no one going to help him? Are they not going to put him in an ambulance? They're not going to try to save his life? Are they not going to at least cover him with a sheet?"

And as you talk to residents of Ferguson who were there that day, they found that so dehumanizing. It was this question of, if they're willing to treat him this way after his death, what might they have done to him while he was still alive? And that's, you know, in the absence of information, that void is always filled. The rumors were he'd been shot in the head with an execution shot, that his hands were up, that he was screaming "Don't shoot me!" as he was killed. And those became such believable narratives to people on the street because they left him here for so long. Well, of course, they would have treated him this way; why would they not have? Why would I believe that they didn't do that? Because look at what they're doing now.

... I arrived two days after that. And in the two days between Michael Brown is killed and when I get there, you see what begins as just as organic outcries, people walking out of their apartment buildings and going, "Hey, aren't you going to help that kid?," yelling at the officers in very practical, pragmatic ways, "What's going on? We want to know why this kid is dead outside of our house," that soon metastasize into broad protests that at times break into riots.

That night there's some small fires, and teargas was used. The next night the QuikTrip gas station on the corner is burned down, and then that property damage becomes the signal to the nation that, "Oh, perhaps we really need to pay attention to this one," which is an interesting conversation about us and our priorities and why we begin looking at stories and do not.

But I get there on the 11th, and when I arrive--you know, I'd covered police shootings before; I'd been in crime scenes before; I'd been at police tape. But it was clear from the first moment in Ferguson, Mo., that this was different. You could feel it in the air how palpable the anger and the pain was, how a line had been crossed. This wasn't people coming out and saying, "This time we're going to have justice." This was people who were going to insist, if it meant they had to stand on the street between now and when the grand jury comes out, "We will be here every night, and we will do this because this time it matters." That was what was so different in this case to others, is that people really said: "Enough is enough. We are going to address this, this time. There will not be another one."

Talk more about how the anger grows, the reaction of the police, the rubber bullets, the teargas.

Well, I think there's a crescendo. It begins with the shooting, and that evolves into a lack of information that even one day, two days after, the police would only say, "There was an altercation at a vehicle, and we shot and killed Michael Brown." They offered no narrative, no explanation, no information about the robbery, no information about the back-and-forth, the shot being fired at the car.

Because of that, it didn't pass the smell test for most residents. It's this idea that in America, if an agent of the government, an agent of the state, kills a kid, a teenager in the street, we deserve some information in real time about what happened. That was the feeling of so many of these residents. They could not grasp why they weren't being told more, and the fact that they weren't being told more led them to believe that there must be something nefarious here.

Now, that is what drove them into the streets and kept them in the streets. Then the police in Greater St. Louis responded to these protests with shows of their own force. We are now seeing officers in full riot gear coming out to police protests being held by church groups, you know. And you could see a line of officers in these large MRAP vehicles, these militarized vehicles, looking through sniper scopes, and off to the left what they're looking at is a bunch of church ladies singing hymns and clapping their hands.

The response felt so outsized, that only further pushed more people into the streets and made people feel more angry. I remember talking to a minister on Aug. 13 about this police response. And he says: "When I call a peaceful protest, when my congregation comes in the street to hold hands and sing hymns and we're met with riot gear, that tells me we're at a riot. It immediately puts people on the defensive. It makes people angry: Why are we being treated this way? Why are we being dealt with this way?"

And then that further escalates, night after night, where the crowds would shift. During the day, you would very often have these large peaceful groups. By the night, you'd have these groups of teens who would come out, people who had been drinking, people who might have been smoking, and it would very quickly turn into these standoff situations--a line of officers, all in their riot gear, and then some 14-year-old throws a water bottle at them. A friend, Rembert Browne, said once, "You've never known fear until you've been standing in front of a group of riot officers, and you've watched a punk teenager throw a water bottle at them, and have thought, we're all going to die right now."

We saw night after night the deployment of teargas, the deployment of rubber bullets, deployment of these sonic noises to try to disperse people that only further inflamed people and only further upset people; that each night of that violence meant that the next night people had to come back out.

Did the police ever explain why the body was left on the street for four and a half hours?

It's something that officers, that Tom Jackson, the former police chief in Ferguson, some others have said they regretted. One thing they talk about was that they wanted to make sure that they had processed the scene correctly. And then as the crowd started to gather, they had these competing priorities: Are we going to deal with all of the people who are here? Are we going to try to deal with the scene? How do we do both? You know, Canfield Drive is a relatively narrow, kind of residential street. They didn't have a ton of options of getting things in and out, especially once people started crowding around.

Most people, like I said, the police themselves, agree that if they could go back and do something different, it would be that the body would be covered. It wouldn't be out there baking in the sun for hours, because there was this dehumanization there. It was this idea that Michael Brown was not a human worthy of respect. And again, if you don't respect someone in death, what should that tell me about how you may have treated them while they were still alive?

The story is going worldwide at this point. What's the expectations for Obama?

Yeah. Again, this kind of represents the trap that a black president is in here. His involvement will only further inflame this, no matter what. No matter what he says, no matter what he does, it's going to further politicize this issue.

With that said, you have residents who are caught in two different directions. You have people who are viscerally upset that the president has not shown up. To this day, President Obama has never been to Ferguson, Mo. In real time, people are saying: "Where is he? We voted for this guy, and now this kid we know is dead in the street. Where is President Obama?"

At the same time, you have people who viscerally want him to arrive, to show up. And some of those people were pacified when Attorney General Eric Holder comes, right? Some people believed that that was an important step. Many people believed that's an important step.

But you have a whole 'nother set of people, especially the young people, the young black and brown 20-somethings, many of whom become the faces of what we eventually see as a protest movement birthed in the Obama years. For them, they would have booed President Obama had he come. They didn't want him there, because they had learned the limitations of the black presidency. They had come to conclude that what was President Obama going to do?

There's this moment with Tef Poe, who's a rapper and who's one of the activists in Missouri, and he's at this town hall talking with Claire McCaskill, the senator from Missouri. She's arguing essentially: "We've got to get this energy, and we've got to pour it into voting, and we've got to get everyone registered. We have to if we want to make change. If we want things to be different, we've got to show up at the ballot box." And he goes, "I voted for Barack Obama twice, and Michael Brown is still dead."

And I can't tell you how many times I've heard that from activists ... in Cleveland and Baltimore and Ferguson: "I voted for Barack Obama twice. I canvassed for Barack Obama. And Trayvon Martin is still dead. And Jordan Davis is still dead. And Oscar Grant is still dead. And Sandra Bland is still dead."

[It's] this idea, again, that the existence of a black president shows the limitation of a black president, that it mobilizes this outside-of-the-system political will, political anger and political motivation, because it shows that simply having someone who looks like you in the biggest seat in the biggest house is not enough to undo all of the ways that our legacy of slavery, our original sin, still impacts your day-to-day life.

Do they blame Obama?

I think it's bigger than Obama. I don't think that most of the young activists blame President Obama for Ferguson, for Trayvon Martin, for this period of time, for the backlash to his presidency. But I do think they understand, like I said, his limitations. They understand that he was never the silver bullet; he was never the knight in shining armor who was going to vanquish 300 years of history; that he is chained by the limitations of reality; that he was never going to be able to undo this history, and he was never going to even be able to account for it.

So there's a futility. Sure, come to Ferguson, President Obama, and what are you going to do? Are you going to charge this police officer yourself? Are you going to bring Trayvon Martin back from the dead? I think that it's this realization of what the black presidency could not do.

So explain if you can the Martha Vineyard speech and what that said.

The address on Martha's Vineyard I think was--it's hard to gauge these in part because President Obama is so handcuffed. You listen to the speech knowing that it's going to be lacking no matter what he says, no matter what he does. It's ... this idea that, especially once the Department of Justice had become involved, that he doesn't want to in some way prejudice or undermine the investigation.

So he speaks in ways very often that sound too clinical; they don't sound real; that at moments like this, black America wants the president who understands them, who gets it, who understands the anger, who understands the pain. And the president is dealt [the challenge of] attempting to communicate this genuine empathy while also attempting not to lose 60 percent of the country with what he's saying.

... The president very often is stuck between a rock and a hard place, of "Do I weigh in on the specifics of this shooting?," which he did not do; "Do I attempt to link this to a kind of broad historical [context], painting with this brush and placing this incident into the realm of history?," which I think he's more often done well; or, "Do I ignore it altogether?" In different incidents we've seen him employ this in different ways, and the results are almost always the same. No one quite feels satisfied with how the president has done this.

I think that at some point, it was probably after the blowback he got from the Trayvon Martin comments, when he said, "If I had son, he would look like Trayvon Martin," and this became this meme on the right. It became this huge tension point by the president literally just acknowledging his own skin color, that, "Look, I have two daughters; if I would have had a son, he'd probably look like that kid." That's an objective fact, but it became this huge firestorm.

That may have been the point where the president learned the lesson that "My words will always be lacking." In these moments, there's nothing he can say to soothe the nation; there's nothing he can say to coax us back to sleep. But in reality, history will remember him for the things he does or his administration does in response to these.

History will remember the DOJ report from Ferguson. It will remember the review of these police departments. It will remember the task force and any reforms that come from it. We may or may not remember the speech he gave from the Vineyard.

There are people also that would say what the president ends up doing in some of these speeches, including the Ferguson one, when the rioting is going on, it's more like jujitsu.

Yes. And I think that "more jujitsu" was what inflames many of the young black people who are involved in these spaces, this idea that Michael Brown lives down the street and the president's having trouble even saying his name, but we're being lectured about how our anger is somehow not legitimate, that our pain is somehow not legitimate; that from the highest office in the land down to the most local offices in the land, we as a nation are more concerned about property damage than we are lives. Broken windows aren't broken bones. This idea that somehow there's an equivalence between a gas station and a young man's life further inflames many of the people who have taken to the streets, because they are so angered.

And again, you have a president who, as the chief spokesperson for the American government, is obligated by the nature of his position to defend the police officers, to defend the state, to argue for the protection of property. But to black Americans, who thought they had their black president who would understand them, who would get them, it's just deeply lacking.

The activists that you're talking to, the people that are the movement at that point, they start as enthusiastic Obama supporters working for his elections, and they're the ones that are souring on the ability of the president to accomplish much in these situations. There's an irony there. Just explain that one point, who these people are.

Of course. So many of the young people who take to the streets, take to their college campuses, who become the faces of what we now see as a social justice movement, are people who are brought into the political process by the Obama candidacy, many of whom voted for the first time for Barack Obama, ... people who might have worked in the political system for the first time, canvassing for him, knocking doors for him, volunteering for his campaign. But when you bring people into a political fold with the promise of change, when they aspire to something better, to a world that is better, they demand that better world.

What so many of these people saw is they saw how this election, these two elections hadn't changed anything; that thrusting President Obama into the Oval Office had only intensified the racism in their minds. They'd seen the way he had been attacked. They'd seen the questions of where he'd been born or he hadn't really even [been] vetted; is he a secret Muslim? People saw this. They saw how the president was attacked, and they saw how his presence didn't eliminate racism. There was no post-racial utopia for us to enter into. It only laid bare the undercurrents of racism that still existed.

So, for them, they realized very quickly that there was going to be much more work to be done. It wasn't just voting in '08 and 2012. [There was] this idea that change might require us changing our tactics, stepping into the streets, facing down with the police officers, putting the plastic cuffs on us and taking us to jail; that "What does change require?" The answer was that it required, and requires, more than the election of a black person to run the country.

And so the idea of a post-racial America turns out to have been just basic political hyperbole.

Of course. America was premised on a racial construct. We created this. The president says it often: The original sin of this nation is that we created this race-based slavery and built our economy off of it. Who is poor and who is rich is based fundamentally on the construct of race and the idea that, while the achievement of electing a black president is certainly historic and it certainly marks a moment of our reconciliation, it still can't erase the lingering collateral consequences of our historical realities.

Black Lives Matter. You say the movement was born in Ferguson but conceived earlier through other shootings that took place and this lack of ability for the White House to fix things.

I think that there's a remarkable difference between how young black America saw Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial and then where they are a year later in Ferguson. At the time, in 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed, supposed to be the trial of the century; we're watching like it's going to be O.J. [Simpson]. It's constant cable coverage. People are paying constant attention to it. We're litigating every piece of evidence.

And most people--there were massive protests in Florida. There were sit-ins at the State House. There was this political fight over "Stand Your Ground." But there was never any violence. Killing Trayvon Martin never prompted any violence whatsoever, despite the warnings that it would. There was this idea that came from the center right, that there were going to be riots, and if they don't convict this guy, it's going to be a mess; it's going to be violent.

But black America for the most part was willing to let this play out, that, that in the beginning--this is now the middle of the Obama presidency--people wanted to wait and see what happened. The calls in Trayvon Martin were for an arrest to be made, were for the system to play out. Once George Zimmerman was arrested, people sat patiently and watched. They watched the trial; they watched the proceedings. And the night George Zimmerman was acquitted, they gathered in peaceful prayer vigils across the country.

By the time we get to Ferguson, people had learned the lesson of George Zimmerman, that perhaps the system wasn't designed to work for us; that perhaps playing within the confines of this puzzle, within the rules, isn't actually going to be a mechanism for justice for us; that we did this in this case where we knew that this man should have been convicted, and he wasn't. Now that police are killing people, do we have any confidence that the system is going to play out for us?

I think that's the crucial difference. And so Black Lives Matter, as a hashtag, as a rallying cry, is born after the George Zimmerman acquittal. It's something that, in this moment of abiding grief and pain, that [says], "How could this system still not work for us so deeply?" There was this assertion that no, our lives do matter; even if the system doesn't say they do, even if Trayvon Martin's life does not matter as far as the court system, our lives do matter. It was this positive assertion that over time marinates and evolves and becomes no longer just a private consolation but a public declaration, an assertion of power and demand. And I think that's what we see over the end of the Obama administration, is the evolution of this black political thought.

And the movement probably understood quicker than the press and the rest of America, because this is not a new thing. But the press started reporting on it. And then there was one, and then there was two, and there was three; then it was four; then it was five; then there were six; then there were seven. It was happening almost every week, every day it seemed. ... It started having an effect throughout America in a way that black America always understood it to be.

As Americans, we often look at, and we've been primed and we've been taught to look at, police brutality as an issue of the coast. NYPD can be bad sometimes; LAPD can be bad sometimes. These are problems that happen in big cities, far away from us, not where we live.

But what was revealed to us, from hashtag to hashtag to hashtag, was that this isn't an issue for some far-off city. This is something that's happening all over our backyards; that it's not just Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.; it's not just Eric Garner on Staten Island or Michael Brown in Ferguson or John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, or Tamir Rice in Cleveland or Sandra Bland in Texas, Freddie Gray in Baltimore. It's that time and time again, this is occurring; these are not isolated incidents; that three times a day someone's being shot and killed by a police officer, and if today it's not your city facing the protests, it might be tomorrow.

I think that was the difference, and that is what metastasized this from being the one-off day-after-a-shooting everyone's saying they're going to demand justice, into a sustained societal and social movement. [That] was what we saw for the first time, because of the pressure being applied by these young activists, as well as the ability via social media for them to force us to pay attention, was we could see the frequency. In Ferguson, we were being told that this never happens; people are never killed by the police; it's never unarmed black people; don't worry about it.

Then we watched hashtag after hashtag after hashtag, video after video after video. And at some point, no matter how you feel about any individual shooting, the question is raised: Can every person in the street be wrong? If a million black people take to the street and say, "This is my experience with policing," can every one of them be a liar? Can every one of these shootings be justified? Is there an excuse for all of them? Because if there is not, it begs the question of, is there a larger problem here? I think that that is what was the crucial breakthrough here. The sheer number and frequency of occurrences forced the rest of America to say, perhaps there's something here; maybe not everyone's making it up.

The decision by the grand jury. You're out there watching it. The president also makes a speech afterward. There's a split screen where you're looking. CNN is showing the violence in the streets, and the president is speaking. Take us to that moment.

So the night of the grand jury decision, it's been three months since the death of Michael Brown, and it was just this remarkably depressing wait for what we all knew was happening. We knew Darren Wilson was not going to be charged with a crime for this shooting. What we now know is officers are never charged with crimes in shootings. We didn't quite know that then.

And the whole city is just waiting. It's braced; it's planned for violence. Everyone, from all at the White House to the streets of Ferguson, Mo., knew what would happen that night. And in many ways it spoke to our inability to prevent it. You know a riot is going to break out tonight, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

So we watch how in this belabored way the prosecutor, [Bob] McCulloch, lays out this evidence, why the officer was not charged. And as he's talking, the pain and the anger is building in the streets. People, hundreds of people had gathered outside the police department in Ferguson to watch and listen, and they're listening on live streams on their phones as this announcement is made.

The family of Michael Brown is there, and they're angered, and they're in pain. They start screaming; they're upset. And then the police start emerging from the police department to try to start dispersing people. And very quickly, what began as a rally in a gathering place and then had evolved into a grief vigil has now turned again into yet another clash. Before the president had even taken to his podium, the violence had begun in Ferguson.

And yet it speaks to the futility of any individual person. I think very often we think that if only we had the right orator, if only we had the right leader, the right person, they'd be able to soothe the racial sores and pains. There's no better orator than Barack Obama, ... and it speaks [to the fact that] even with that orator, with that empathy, there's a limitation.

Describe the speech.

That night the president stepped to the podium and spoke in ways that we'd heard him speak previously. He spoke about the need to respect the system, even when we don't understand it, even when we don't feel like it has given us justice. He spoke about the need to honor that system while understanding the pain of communities that don't quite trust the police. And then he repeated the same pleas of the governor of Missouri, of the mayor, of the prosecutor. He again seemed to prioritize property. He talked about the need to make sure things were peaceful.

I think that people find that patronizing, and I think that's been one of the chief touch positions for the president to be in, is that he comes across as patronizing at this moment of pain, at this moment of grief. He's asking pained black Americans, "But please don't attack a liquor store; but please don't burn down a gas station."

I think at that moment, when you've lost someone, when you're hurt and you're pained, the last thing you want to hear and be told is how your response should be.

And the split screen?

I think the split screen was so representative of the limitations of President Obama. For someone who so often clearly understands and can communicate the black American experience, the split screen was the line that showed the extent to which the president could not. It showed his disconnect with America. ...

The visual: What are you seeing on one side the of the screen, and what are you seeing on the other side?

One side of the screen you're seeing the nation's black president begging that a city [does] not go up in flames. And on the right side of the screen, you're seeing young black people saying: "We're done waiting. We're not putting up with this anymore. They've killed one too many people. They've gotten away with it one too many times."

So the DOJ report comes out and reveals the extent of the racism. There's even racist rants against the president and his wife. Describe the importance of the report.

You know, one thing I always say when I talk about the report is that when we first got to Ferguson--we being the media--we would hear anecdote after anecdote of some of the most ridiculous police behavior you'd ever heard. Residents would tell you these stories of being harassed, of being mistreated, of being abused. And for the most part as the media we didn't believe them. We kept most of those stories in our notebooks: That's just too outrageous to be true; it can't be true; there's no way the police did that.

What the Ferguson report did was it validated those pains and that anger and those stories of the people of Ferguson that they'd been telling and trying to tell for months. They had told time and time again that this is about more than Michael Brown; this is about more than his hands being up. This is about the way the police treat black people here.

And we in polite society, in the Beltway, in the media had essentially said, "OK, but were Michael Brown's hands up?" We wanted to have no conversation about whether there was any systemic issues here, whether these other complaints were true. And what the Department of Justice laid bare was that basically everything that the people of Ferguson had been saying was true; that the way they were being taxed and fined and arrested was oppressive, was attacks on them; that the way that they were being interacted with, how often fatal force was being used and deadly force was being used, the way they were being tased, the way police dogs were being used on teenagers. The Department of Justice laid out plainly that there was a legitimate grievance here by the people of Ferguson.

And the racism.

Correct. And that this was a department where people as high as the captain of the department were sharing racist images of the president and his wife, comparing them to monkeys and making jokes about welfare. I mean, it showed and validated everything that the Ferguson protesters had been saying. And it came months later, months after they'd been villianized, months after we decided all these people just don't know what they're talking about and they're making it up. I think very often we treat racism like it's something that's just made up, you know; Al Sharpton and some aggrieved person have just shown and have decided that exists, right?

What the Department of Justice report in Ferguson, and later on in Baltimore and Cleveland, in so many other cities, laid so bare was that yes, there are systemic structural issues and systemic structural racisms baked in to how we police our cities. And because of that, these grievances are valid. No, people are not just making it up.

Let's skip back to Trayvon Martin, February 2012. Give us a little bit of the ticktock. What happens?

Trayvon Martin is in Sanford, Fla., where his father lives, watching the NBA All-Star Game, and he leaves to go to the corner store to pick up snacks. As he's walking back, George Zimmerman, who is a Hispanic member of that community, sees Trayvon Martin, who, in the rain, has now put his hood up on his hoodie, and is walking home. ... And Zimmerman calls the police. There had been a series of break-ins. He's in many ways a self-appointed neighborhood watchman of this locale. He calls the police and says: "There's this sketchy guy out here; he's walking around; he looks like he might be on drugs or something. I'm following him. We've had some break-ins. Can you get someone out here?"

The police essentially say, "We don't need you to follow him, but sure, we'll send someone out." And George Zimmerman at one point hangs up, gets out of his car with a gun, and goes to confront Trayvon Martin.

They have some type of interaction. Turns into a fight, and what we know is that George Zimmerman ends up standing above Trayvon Martin's body, and Trayvon Martin's been shot and killed.

Now, this became, initially was a crime brief, ... and eventually it became this question of, you know, this man killed a boy under potentially nefarious circumstances. There's certainly questions here; this is gray. And he was allowed to go home that night. George Zimmerman was not arrested; he was not charged. They essentially said, "We believe you; it must have been self-defense; you can go."

So the drumbeats start, this call for "arrest George Zimmerman," that he should be charged. Based on what we know so far, this should go to trial. If this was anyone else, if this had been some other circumstance, if it had been the other way, if Trayvon Martin had killed George Zimmerman, we certainly believe he would have been charged with a crime.

So protests began. Organized activism began. And eventually local prosecutors announced they were going to charge George Zimmerman. This leads to a yearlong process, a yearlong trial, where we see the evidence laid bare and where it becomes clear that George Zimmerman is not going to be convicted of this crime. And he's not convicted of this crime. A jury acquits him of the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Now, this was, I think, so painful for so many people, because we know George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman will tell you he killed Trayvon Martin. So it was this feeling of this young, black man, this young, black teenager who has been killed, who was followed, who had committed no crime, who had not placed himself in any situation he should not have been in, who only because someone who did not know him thought he looked suspicious ends up dead on the grass. And there would be no criminal accountability for that.

I think that really spoke to in many ways this feeling of, you know, the black body is a risk, this idea that Trayvon Martin's only sin was his skin color and that had he been a white kid in a hoodie trying to walk home that night, no one would have confronted him or bothered him. I think that that is the why Trayvon Martin becomes such a pivotal tension point on race and justice during the Obama administration.

We talked about what the president says, "That could have been my son." But after the case and the decision is made, he comes out and makes a couple of speeches. ... He comes out first, and he asks for calm, and "We're a nation of laws," and it seems pretty similar to what he does later in Ferguson. But then five days later, [he] comes back to speak, and he tries to explain to white Americans why black Americans are angry. Just describe a little bit about what he says, how it's received and what effect it has.

I believe that was at a press conference or a press availability. ... He walks into the press room and begins essentially to riff on what his experience as a black man has been, and why in black America there is such a distrust, or lack of trust, of the system, of the police, of these processes; the feelings of being profiled; the feelings of knowing, "Is this store manager following me around, not because he actually thinks I'm stealing something, but because he's predisposed to think I'm going to steal something because of the way I look?"

I thought that was actually a unique moment for the president ... it's him speaking to his own experience as a black American, something that no one can seize away from him. I think that it brings a humanity both to the presidency as well as to the black experience. And it validates that even Barack Obama, who we now know as this transformative president, has faced these same frustrations, these same prejudices, these same questions, spurred, again, by the color of his skin.

So I think that the moment when he addresses the press on Trayvon Martin is one of the moments where he hits the right tone and addresses one of these issues of race most effectively, because it's not a hypothetical; it's a real experience from the life of Barack Obama that, again, is unimpeachable. It's not something that can be taken away; it's not something that can even really be questioned. It's just his reality. And by communicating that his reality is one that has intersected with racism validates the realities of so many other black Americans.

And the reaction to it is?

It's relatively the same partisan response. In that case, I think that was one of the better-received statements by the president broadly, certainly in black spaces. But I also think that even the partisan backlash to that set of comments was more muted than some of his previous comments. Nothing enraged people more than "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon Martin," right? But having a kind of less scripted, more genuine interaction, with the president speaking of his own personal experience, I thought was something that even critics of the president felt was more effective than some of his other attempts to wade in to these [waters].

Let's skip to Charleston, June 2015. If you can, give us a bit of the ticktock of who Dylann Roof is, what he does on that night, the actions that he took, and the motivations.

Dylann Roof was a young man who essentially self-radicalizes himself. He had felt racially aggrieved, had bought in to the dark sections of the Internet, had spent a lot of time on white supremacist sites, had spent a lot of time researching and trying to understand politics of white racial grievance, and he had adopted this idea and this mind-set essentially that black men and black people were aggressively corrupting white people and white women. It's a type of trope that we've seen historically employed by people who have politics of white racial grievance.

So what Dylann Roof does is he goes to Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., an historic black church that had once housed a slave revolt, one of the most storied black congregations, led by Clementa Pinckney, a well-known black minister, member of the state legislature, civil rights activist. He approaches that night a Bible study with a dozen, maybe two dozen people in it. That night, Dylann Roof, possibly the only white person there, walks in and is welcomed with open arms. They open the door for him; they offer him a seat at the table as they're going around and going through Scripture. And that night, Dylann Roof pulls out a gun, opens fire, and kills almost everyone who is in that room. Nine people end up being killed, including Rev. Pinckney.

And he gets away. He's not immediately apprehended; he doesn't kill himself. He flees. And that night, there is this immediate sense of knowing where this is likely going. You know, we initially don't know who the suspect is; we initially don't know who has killed these people. But we know. Here you have an historically black church, a politically active black minister, eight black congregants who have been gunned down at a midweek Bible study in this historic black congregation. And black America knew, even before they knew, what this must be.

Now, you know, this is a time before the rise of Donald Trump. It's before this open conversation we're having about white racial politics and whether or not perhaps all of these angry people aren't just angry about economics; perhaps there is some racial undertow here. Perhaps the attacks on the president, the delegitimization of the president has fed this white racial grievance, and Dylann Roof becomes the embodiment of this. He becomes the embodiment of this alliance of the people who supported George Zimmerman and the people who supported Darren Wilson, the people who go on to support Donald Trump, this idea that people feel as if their culture and their country has been taken from them and they have to actively take it back.

Now, Dylann Roof is eventually arrested and charged, [goes] on trial. But the Charleston shooting represents yet another moment where the nation is forced to acknowledge that we don't live in some post-racial society. Here you have a black president of the United States of America traveling to Charleston, S.C., to give a eulogy for a black minister and lawmaker who was assassinated by a white supremacist terrorist, and that lawmaker then had to lay, his body in state, in a state house where the Confederate flag was still flying.

I don't know that there's been a moment in the Obama presidency that has more encapsulated both how far we have come on race and yet how far we still have to go.

His motivations also, it came out afterward, I think we learned that the Trayvon Martin case was one of the things he focused on as proof of white people under siege, [and] also in the church he says why he's doing it is because "you people are taking over." It's been defined as, in some ways, as "these people" who die that night were proxies for Obama in a way, that here's a kid who would have loved to have gotten his hands on Obama. Obama is "those people" that are taking away what he finds so necessary.

Those motivations, of course. When President Obama was elected, there was this deep, abiding fear in black America that he would be assassinated. There was, most black Americans, if they were speaking honestly to you, would have bet that the president would have been assassinated. And there was this horror, this horrifying sense that the president had to be physically protected in this way, which is actually where a lot of the loyalty and abiding loyalty from black America comes from, was that this was going to be something that was going to be physically taken away because his very presence was going to anger people so much.

What we see now, eight years later, has been not that there have not been threats to the president, not that there have not been attempts; I'm sure there have been. But what we've seen, rather, is that black bodies have served as the proxy for people attempting to get at the president, right; that it's not just that the president was under threat by these forces, but that all of the people who shared his skin tone were under the threat of these forces.

It's this feeling that, from Trayvon Martin to the Charleston Nine to the Sandra Blands and the Freddie Grays, that the black body is a threat and therefore something that is being attacked. You know, Dylann Roof lays out in his manifesto in what's been reported that he says in that room that he was aggrieved, that he was angered by the Trayvon Martin case; that he was upset at the way he thought George Zimmerman had been villainized; that he thought this country was being seized and taken away; that this was the rise of black and brown people, that you've even got a black president and all these immigrants are coming.

It just spoke to the sickness that comes from the deep indoctrination in these spaces that have been so angered by the Obama presidency; that if you read everything written, if you believe he's a Kenyan, anticolonial socialist, if you're watching the conspiracy movies, if you're reading the blogs, that you can see how an otherwise reasonable person would be so corrupted and so angered and so convinced that the Other, that these "Other People" have taken away this great country from us.

Dylann Roof's politics are not unlike many of the politics we hear from Donald Trump supporters, many of the politics we heard from George Zimmerman supporters and Darren Wilson supporters. There is a politics of white racial grievance that feels fundamentally threatened, people who feel their existence is fundamentally threatened not only by the Obama presidency but by the period of time that the Obama presidency has brought with it.

Let's do the Obama side of this now. Here you have a horror story that takes place, and the focus is on two of the major issues that he has had no ability to solve. It's a mass murder, which he's been stymied on--specifically after Newtown, where he got so involved in it--and it's the issue of race. You can't get into his head, but from what we know, how does the event tie that and become such an important moment for him? Again, it's after the re-election and such.

I think the Charleston moment is so vitally important in the Obama presidency because it speaks to one, these two intractable issues of his presidency, mass shootings and race and these racial incidents, but I also think it speaks to Obama finding his stride as to what his role is in these incidents.

President Obama could have come to Charleston or could have held a press conference and demanded the Confederate flag come down. He could have issued a speech about the history of white racial grievance. He could have been the one to advance that argument, and three or four years earlier he might have done that. But at this point in the Obama presidency, after Trayvon Martin, after Henry Louis Gates, there's an understanding and I believe finally a mastery of how he navigates these issues.

What you see is the president coming into a black space, into the funeral, the homegoing celebration of Rev. Pinckney, and you see him not attempting to play the politics of the nation, not attempting to be the steady hand assuring everyone that everything is OK and will be OK. But rather, you see him speaking relatively honestly and frankly about the history of the flag still flying above the South Carolina State House, of the assassination of this black lawmaker, of the hate in Dylann Roof's heart, and then stringing it together in the old theocratic tradition of black civil rights and making the Christian argument that this will get better, and things are getting better; employing this argument of grace abiding and being the thing that will liberate these pained black people from this moment of trauma and grief.

The president in Charleston, I think, is one of the speeches, along with the Selma speech and a few others, that we will remember in the Obama canon, not only because he broke into hymn, but because of the means in which he conjured the cadence of black America through the words and the sounds of a black preacher, but through the reality and understanding. It was among the most relatable moments, I think, because President Obama gave the sermon that your minister would have given.

I think at that moment he wasn't attempting to be all things to all people; he was attempting to be the thing he needed to be to black America that day.

He was the black president for that day.


Does his speech show an idealism, still?

I think that the president's worldview and his understanding of American exceptionalism is premised on the idea that we can be better tomorrow than we are today. And no, none of the incidents of his presidency, from Trayvon to Sandy Hook to Charleston, seem to have shaken that ideology. It's the underlying Obama doctrine, that he in fact is the utmost anecdote of the reality that we can be better tomorrow than we were today--not to say that today is not terrible, but that tomorrow might be better.

I think that that speaks to the disconnect often between the conscience and the current feeling of black America, which, [while] it can be much more fatalistic, is much more rooted in the current reality; that it's nice that tomorrow might be better, but today they're killing us.

But I think President Obama in his role, contemporarily and historically, his ideology, his space is one of encouragement, is one that goes back to hope and change, and hope for change, right, this idea that America can [be] and will be better. And I think that underscores ... his role as a relatively transformational figure in the mid-2000s. It is the reason that I think we projected on him the idea of a post-racial America, because so clearly and well articulated is this concept and this ideology and this idea that America can be better, that I think sometimes we saddle him with "OK, where is it, Barack? Where is this America that was going to be better?"

His address in Selma at the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march I think beautifully articulated and walked through his worldview and his view of American exceptionalism; that America is great not because it is inherently great, that our soil is better or our people are just better. We're great because we've built within our system of government the mechanism to continually get better, that John Lewis can march and be beaten and win the right to vote and then 50 years later be on the bridge again with the black president as a member of Congress. That is America's greatness.

And I think that is, like I said, so much, it's so central to I think how the president sees race and his role in dealing with race and adjudicating race.

How has the president evolved over his belief over this? Has he come to a point where he now believes that he can't solve things? Has he evolved in the way that he sees his position as what it should be when it comes to these issues dealing with race in general?

I think the president has probably become much more frustrated in realizing the limitations and the futility of his own role in real time, because I think the president clearly understands his historic role, his role in putting his foot and his finger on the scale, whether that be in the Confederate flag fight or in the fight for a more equitable policing system. He sees the way that he can use the bully pulpit of the presidency to force some of these conversations on, and therefore some of the reforms on.

But he also I think has come to accept, through the blowback of the Trayvon Martin situation and others, that he will never be able to go and give the speech that solves; that he will never be able to soothe the pain, using his words; that he is destined, as long as he remains the president, to be a divisive and polarizing figure, and that rather much of the work he can do is work that will reap its benefits long after he's no longer in the White House.


Meaning his policing task force, meaning these Department of Justice investigations, meaning, like I said, kind of scooting along or putting his finger on the scale to get the Confederate flag down in South Carolina. The idea of, are there spaces in which the White House and the presidency can be used to force ... these conversations along and to therefore force process along? That isn't necessarily something that's going to require an address, not necessarily something that's going to be seen as an Obama initiative, not something he necessarily is out in front on. It's not that he is going to give the race speech, and then, whoop, now we all understand it, so we should go reform everything.

But rather, how can he use and create spaces, whether that's holding convenings at the White House of police leaders and data leaders and cultural leaders? How can he use the resources and the reach that he has in ways that don't necessarily have to be public or widely disseminated? How can he use that to advance these causes. I think we've seen a lot more of that in the second half of the Obama presidency than we did in the first half of the Obama presidency.

Because he has evolved? Why?

Because I think he's grown in to his understanding of what he can do effectively and what will cause so much blowback that it becomes a distraction. I think he stopped stepping on his own toes as it relates to race in America and rather has stopped engaging with people who don't want to have this conversation in good [faith], and rather has doubled down on focusing his energies and efforts in spaces where he knows he's going to be able to have a positive impact.