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President Barack Obama said frustrations like those that led to destructive protests over the failure of a grand jury to indict a police officer in Michael Brown's death "have deep roots in our communities of color," promising Tuesday to convene meetings across the country to make sure "law enforcement is fair."
Speaking in Chicago at an event to boost support for his executive order last week on immigration, Obama directly addressed the violence that racked Ferguson, Missouri, and many other U.S. cities Monday and Tuesday after a grand jury declined to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of the unarmed black teenager.
The anger behind those protests is "rooted in realities that have existed in this country for a long time," Obama said. But "burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property and putting people at risk — that's destructive, and there's no excuse for it. Those are criminal acts."
Obama said it was important to support people who were seeking to change the system peacefully. To those protesters, he said: "I want all those folks to know their president is going to work with them. And "a lot of folks, I believe, in law enforcement and a lot of folks in city halls and in governor's offices across the country want to work with you."
Saying it was work that had to be done "city by city, state by state, county by county," Obama said his administration would begin as early as next week to convene "regional meetings" of community, faith and civic leaders to "identify specific steps we can take to ensure law enforcment is fair and is being applied equally to everyone in this country."
Some of those steps, he suggested, include better training of more representatively diverse police agencies and full accountability and transparency in police operations.
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said Obama arrived late because he was being briefed on the situation in Ferguson by Attorney General Eric Holder, who said a federal civil rights investigation "remains ongoing."
Obama has been actively engaged in the Ferguson case, Schultz said, detailing that Valerie Jarrett, one of the president's closest advisers, had spoken with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon since Monday and has been briefing Obama regularly.
"We are all deeply worried and disappointed — and concerned — about the violence, any sort of violence, and that's why the president went out and spoke about it last night," Schultz said. The president "felt strongly that he wanted to be heard last night to convey a message of calm," he said.
"The vast majority of protests in Missouri and around the country were peaceful and constructive," he said.