CHICAGO (REUTERS) – US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that anyone who destroys property in rioting against a Missouri grand jury’s decision should be prosecuted, urging Americans upset by the court to work together to improve race relations.
For the second day in a row, Obama weighed in on the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the death of a black youth last summer. The grand jury’s decision set off waves of violent protests in Ferguson.
“Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk, that’s destructive and there’s no excuse for it. Those are criminal acts. And people should be prosecuted if they engage in criminals acts,” Obama said in a speech in Chicago.
The violence has brought race to the fore again for Obama and presented him with a challenge on how to cool tempers in Ferguson but also to answer concerns in black communities that law enforcement official hold minorities to a different standard.
Obama said he sympathised with these communities. He said he had directed Attorney General Eric Holder to hold regional meetings between community leaders and law enforcement around the country to identify ways to build trust.
“The frustrations that we’ve seen are not just about a particular incident. They have deep roots in many communities of color who have a sense that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly or fairly,” Obama said.
He said to those who think what happened in Ferguson is an excuse for violence, “I have no sympathy for destroying your own communities.”
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered hundreds more National Guard troops to the Ferguson area on Tuesday, following a night of looting and destruction of businesses in the aftermath of the decision to clear white officer Darren Wilson of criminal charges in the August shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown.
Black lawmakers in Congress and local activists pinned their hopes for justice on an ongoing US Justice Department probe into whether Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights through excessive force, and whether Ferguson police systematically violated people’s rights through excessive force or discrimination.
“I am confident that the investigation will bring us closer to the justice that Brown’s family and the entire Ferguson community deserve,” said Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rev. Michael McBride, who has been in Ferguson with other clergy since August training in peaceful protests and meeting with officials, said Brown’s death “has been spit upon by the criminal justice system” in the Missouri city.
“Now is the opportunity for the president to really be my brother’s keeper,” said McBride, who is from Oakland, California. “As a black man he knows the experience of what it is to be a black man in this country. Eric Holder knows. We need the two most powerful black men in this country to take action.”
US Senator Tim Scott, a black Republican from South Carolina, said important questions remained to be answered in the Brown case, but that rioting or looting would only distract attention from the continuing investigations.
“As federal and state officials continue to examine all the facts surrounding this tragedy and the subsequent events, I encourage the public to allow a thoughtful and thorough search for justice and truth for the Brown family and the community of Ferguson,” Scott said.