President Barack Obama spoke forcefully on Monday about using his last two years in office to take on the problems of race and policing illustrated by the controversy in Ferguson, but -- for now -- he has offered policy solutions that fall short of what activists have demanded.
“There have been commissions before, there have been task forces, there have been conversations and nothing happens,” Obama told reporters as he sat with a group of several dozen activists who the White House had invited to meet with him in the wake of continued protests in Ferguson and around the country.
He added: “What I try to describe to people is why this time will be different. And part of the reason this time will be different is because the President of the United States is deeply invested in making sure that this time is different."
Looking to show his concern about tensions between police and residents both in Ferguson and around the country, Obama took the highly unusual step of holding three meetings in a single day on the same issue. The president spent hours in sessions on Ferguson, first one with his Cabinet, then with seven young black and Latino activists who have done much of the organizing in protest of Michael Brown’s death, concluding with a larger group that included civil rights leaders, pastors and law enforcement officials.
The administration also announced on Monday it would establish $75 million in funding each year to help local police departments buy at least 50,000 cameras that officers would wear on their bodies when interacting with the public. It was a strong presidential endorsement of body cameras, an idea that civil rights advocates have urged. The president also created a task force on policing that will examine what other changes might be needed.
But it was equally striking what Obama did not say on Monday. He did not criticize the behavior of the police in Ferguson. He and his aides would not commit to a presidential visit to the community. Rejecting calls to end the program, the White House instead defended a Pentagon initiative that sends excess military equipment, including Humvees, to local police departments.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “in many cases, these programs actually serve a very useful purpose."
The White House also did not adopt proposals from civil rights activists to create a national police czar or require local police departments that get funding from the Department of Justice to implement certain policies, such as mandating officers undergo racial bias training.
“We appreciate the president wanted to meet with us, but now he must deliver with meaningful policy,” said James Hayes, political director for the Ohio Students Association, who was one of the young activists who met with the president.
In a statement, he added, “We are calling on everyone who believes that Black lives matter to continue taking to the streets until we get real change for our communities.”
Antoine White, a hip-hop artist from St. Louis who is known as T-Dubb-O, said of body cameras during an interview, "I still consider it a Band-Aid" on a much larger problem.
"Giving a policeman a camera does not prevent him from shooting me in the head," he said, noting officers at times don't turn on the cameras.
The first black president has been criticized in the past for how he reacts to complicated racial matters. Conservatives have argued his remarks, such as in 2009 suggesting Massachusetts police “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and in 2012 saying that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” were inappropriate for a president. But some black leaders and activists argue Obama is too reluctant to speak forcefully on race and condemn racist behavior.
It’s clear the president is trying to strike the right balance in the wake of a grand jury opting not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on criminal charges because of Brown’s death.
The president has not spoken personally in the way he did after the conclusion of the trial of George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, or as bluntly as he did regarding Gates’ arrest. He has refused to adopt some policies, such as ending the transfer of military equipment, that might annoy police officers.
“Whether you’re in a big city or in a small community, as Eric Holder put it, police officers have the right to come home,” Obama said on Monday, defending police. “And if they’re in dangerous circumstances, we have to be able to put ourselves in their shoes and recognize that they do have a tough job.”
At the same time, the administration is showing deep engagement on the issues surrounding Ferguson. Along with Obama’s moves in Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder went to Atlanta on Monday, the first of a number of community meetings he is holding around the country to address tensions between police and residents.
“What I heard today was real change in the making,” said Laura Murphy, the head of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, who attended one of the meetings with the president.
In the private sessions, according to sources who attended, Obama was more personal than in his public remarks. He said that as a state senator, he attended a fundraiser for Bill Clinton where, on the way to his table, someone tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to bring them tea, assuming the future president was one of the African-American servers at the event.
When one of the activists spoke of creating a movement around Ferguson, the president said he agreed with that idea, but noted movements often die. The time to implement at least some changes, even if they were modest, was now, Obama said.
The president was particularly invested in the session with the young organizers, which was held in the Oval Office. The seven activists recounted stories of themselves and friends being in their view harassed by police. Some said they had tear gas fired at them by Ferguson police. But when one of the organizers complained that their concerns were not being heard, Obama bluntly replied, "I've heard your voices. That's why you're here."
Obama urged them to push for change, but also said it would take time, noting he was unlikely to accomplish all of his goals during eight years as president.
He not only met with them for more than an hour, but then urged activists to attend the larger group session, which they had not planned to go to, and speak there as well.
"He told us he was proud of us," said T-Dubb-O. "That was the most shocking thing to hear."