From Ferguson Shooting to New York Chokehold: Obama’s Crash Test

From Ferguson Shooting to New York Chokehold: Obama’s Crush Test
Obama is struggling to ease communal urban unrest by initiating steps to streamline the police system in the aftermath of the Ferguson tragedy. Simmering distrust between police departments and communities of color comes as the critical test for the first Afro-American President in US history.

Studio guest Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Institute of the Middle East, Fred Weir, Moscow correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, and Dr. Yuval Weber, Assistant Professor from the Centre for Advanced Studies at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, shared their opinions with Radio Sputnik.

President Obama had a lot of meetings and gave a lot of talks, is this Obama’s crash test?

Evgeny Satanovsky: I think that’s normal, that’s Obama’s style. He is not an Afro-American President, he is African-American President. That is a huge difference. He is not American, with his daddy from Kenya, with his youth outside of the US. He does not feel America. He didn’t live a single day of his life in the Afro-American community. He was not a son or grandson of somebody from slaves. He is not a man of Martin Luther King community. He is a politician using his colour for being a President on behalf of these guys, but he doesn’t feel them and he is not interested in them.
The problem of Obama is that he is a populist, he is not a man of practice. So, the only thing he can do is to make a speech. And he is doing this. He cannot do something for his own country, because he does not feel this country.

As an American citizen, what do you think of these protests?

Yuval Weber: The thing about what President Obama can or cannot do is that he has no formal power over these cases. There is a very clear separation between the powers and the crimes that these police officers were accused of committing are state crimes and not federal crimes. So, essentially, the only thing that Obama can do is – he can ask the Department of Justice to investigate whether the federal civil rights were violated and give speeches. What we are seeing in Ferguson, in New York and other places around the country is the national conversation being moved.

We can see that even in these particular cases? They’ve been investigated and the Grand Jury has failed to indict, meaning that the Grand Jury failed to find a sufficient evidence of a crime. So, essentially, the cases are done. But what we see in the protests, in the populations of these cities are coming out, they are signaling to their elected representatives that the things that have happened are no longer acceptable, we want new laws, new rules that will help prevent a repetition of this situation in the future.

Those could be: requiring the police officers to have video cameras, internal police department’s rules at the local level that sanction the police officers who get involved in murder or violence, and there might be something like Congress people to make a law that will require the FBI to publish the statistic on police violence. So, essentially, what I see is the American people having a conversation about police violence. Even though it is never nice to see a protest, it is really important that the people in the US are having the conversation in public.

Do you agree with how Obama has handled it and could he have done something better?

Fred Weir: I certainly agree, Obama cannot directly interfere in any of these things. Obama’s special problem is that he is the first black President of the US. And there was a lot of celebration when he was elected and even a talk that the US is a post-racial society. And, of course, the really serious social problem still exists and in the past few weeks we've seen at least three cases erupting, that show that there is this disparity in the streets – heavily armed police will shoot or kill black people almost with impunity and the grand juries, which often decide to prosecute any other kind of the crime (I've read that in 90% of the cases), let the police officers off without prosecution.

And so, there is a systemic problem of racism in the US, there is no doubt about that. But the first black President of the US is in the position where he cannot directly address it, I mean through some kind of executive action. What he can do is talk about it. And I think the question about Obama is just – is he doing enough – because he is calling for a reform, he is calling for the committees to be set up, to investigate the problem, he is talking about expanding the conversation and he can move that conversation forward in some dramatic way. And I think the criticisms of him from the left and from the African-American community are that he isn’t doing enough of that.

There’ve been calls that Obama should actually visit Ferguson in person. Do you agree that this would help the situation?

Fred Weir: Well, again, that is something that he could do. When there are natural disasters in the US, the President often goes and he is criticized if he doesn’t go to see the devastation, to comfort the people. It is perfectly possible for the President to go there, but it would be a very vexed and perhaps inflammatory thing. It would have to be well-planned and he would have to know exactly why he was going and what he was going to say there.
For instance, if he were going to give a dramatic speech about racism in America, that would be a good place for him to go and do it. The symbolism of it would be explosive, it would be a powerful thing, but also a really risky thing. And that’s perhaps why he hasn’t done it until now.

Dr. Weber, do you think Obama’s visit to Ferguson likely and would that help the situation?

Yuval Weber: Essentially, Obama is caught between the two issues – there are people who want him to do more, who would want him to go to Ferguson, and there is the legal reality where the prosecutors have to prove to the Grand Jury that a police officer who commits violence intended to hurt a person and had an expectation of a serious injury. So, there is the legal reality that leads to these very consistent acquittals of these police officers that Obama has to deal with.

Personally, I would like to see the conversation continue. But I also see that President Obama is a very careful person who doesn’t really push the public opinion through his own action but tries to get the public opinion in front of him. So, although I would prefer to see Obama going to Ferguson, at this point it would not be any time soon or any time in a way that would be designed really push the conversation forward in a very explicit fashion.

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