‘RESPONSIBILITY’: Barack Obama
WITH TENSIONS between police and African Americans high following a series of high-profile deaths of black men and boys, many citizens have complained they have looked to their President for guidance and been left wanting.
This week, Barack Obama sat down for an interview with BET (Black Entertainment Television) on Monday (Dec 8) to address the criticisms levelled against him and what his administration is doing to tackle what he admits is a national problem.
He told interviewer Jeff Johnson: “I feel an enormous amount of responsibility not just as President, but because of my particular experiences that I bring to this office.”
The President revealed that the experiences he had as a young man growing up black in America not only personally affected him, they provided an inspiration to enter politics and address some of the inequalities he had witnessed firsthand.
Referring directly to the death of father Eric Garner, who was captured on video camera as he struggled to breathe while NYPD officers forcefully restrained him despite his cries for help, Obama said: “Some folks used to say black folks are exaggerating, that some of these situations aren’t what we have described. We have all seen this on television [and] it gives us an opportunity to finally have the conversation that has been a long time coming.”
Responding to criticisms that he has not done enough, Obama, who passed a law when he was a Senator for Illinois that all police interrogations should be filmed to avoid instances of coerced confessions, appeared drained.
“Sometimes people’s concerns are not based on fact…I am being pretty explicit about my concerns that this is a systemic problem and…I describe it in very personal terms.
“I think what sometimes people are frustrated by is me not simply saying ‘this is what the outcome should have been’ – and that I cannot not do [constitutionally],” he said.
“It is my justice department that is investigating these cases and part of the rule of law is that I am not putting my thumb on the scale of justice. It could compromise an investigation if it appeared that I was trying to steer a particular outcome.
“So I am sure there are some folks who want me to say, ‘Oh in such a such a case this is what I think should have happened’ and ‘if I had been on a grand jury’ and so forth and so on.
FAMILY MAN: Eric Garner with his wife
“I will leave it to people to speculate on what I am saying to myself or what I say to [my wife] Michelle when we are alone at night.”
Obama went on to explain that alongside the Attorney General Eric Holder he had been working to address a wide range of criminal justice issues including how Federal [those led by the Government, rather than at State or local level] prosecutors bring charges against low level drug offenders.
He said the effort had resulted in the incarceration rate dropping by 10 per cent to its lowest point in 40 years.
Obama revealed he had set up a taskforce comprising criminologists, civil rights activists and other experts which reports back to him with recommendations of “specific [and] concrete steps” on how to improve policing.
However, Johnson pointed out, his reach as President only extended to Federal level.
Obama responded: “The Federal government can have an impact – we fund many jurisdictions. [We can say] adopt best practice or perhaps we will take some of the funding that law enforcement cares about and give more to those [jurisdictions] who are doing the right thing and investigate those who aren’t. I think that becomes an important part of leverage we can exert.”
He added that the Department of Justice – which is under the management of the Federal Government – has the authority to launch civil rights investigations and said it would be doing so.
OUTCRY: People protesting over the killing of Eric Garner
The President warned, however, that Federal cases had a higher threshold than at state and local level so expectations had to be realistic.
Obama attributed some of the tragedies to bad training, justice departments that “are not seriously trying to root out bias or sloppy police work, “folks not knowing any better and a subconscious fear of people who look different”.
He added: “We can’t make it perfect, but we can make it better.
“Part of what I think is so heartbreaking and frustrating…is the recognition that simply by virtue of colour you’ve got less margin for error.
“That’s particularly true for black boys. Young men, teenage boys – sometimes they’re gonna do stupid stuff. That’s true if they are black, white, Latino…Then we grow and we progress, hopefully, and we become solid citizens and men who are contributing to society.
“We don’t just want to make sure that the perfect young man is treated okay, we also want a boy...who is maybe a little confused or made a mistake – we want them to be given the same benefit of the doubt as any other man would be given and that I think is going to be the test of whether or not our society and law enforcement and schools are operating the way they should.”