Why top politicians stay silent on Ferguson shooting and protests
World View: Barack Obama cannot say anything about race relations for fear of making things worse, but Hillary Clinton has no such excuse
‘The most thoughtful comment from any leading politician came from Kentucky senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Tea Party favourite who currently leads the field of potential Republican presidential hopefuls.’ Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A protester in Ferguson, Missouri on Thursday night. Photograph: Eric Thayer/The New York Times
The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, has dominated media in the US for the past two weeks. Even the beheading in Syria of journalist James Foley only dislodged Ferguson from the top of the news agenda for a day or two.
Pundits, professors and political activists have all weighed in on the shooting of Brown and the heavy-handed police response to the protests that followed it, but one group has been notable for its silence – America’s top politicians.
President Barack Obama has commented twice and the White House issued a statement after the shooting, but the president said little beyond calling for calm and promising to avoid prejudging an investigation into Brown’s death.
Hillary Clinton, the undeclared but formidable Democratic frontrunner for president in 2016, has said nothing at all. Neither has vice-president Joe Biden. Former Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan made a point of saying that he will not be saying anything about Ferguson, a position later adopted by New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
Divisions and fears
Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who has made no secret of his presidential ambitions in 2016, said the events in Ferguson showed “there are gulfs and gaps and divisions and fears that separate us from one another”.
And Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, another Democrat sometimes spoken of as a presidential contender, described Brown’s shooting as “a terrible thing” and criticised the police for overreacting.
The most thoughtful comment from any leading politician came from Kentucky senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Tea Party favourite who currently leads the field of potential Republican presidential hopefuls.
Paul, who found himself in trouble in 2010 when he suggested that the Civil Rights Act was wrong to forbid businesses from turning away customers because of their race, last week addressed directly the racial issue at the heart of the unrest in Ferguson.
“Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth,” he wrote on time.com.
Unlike Obama, Paul sought to put himself in the shoes of Brown, who was shot dead by a white policeman when he initially refused to stop walking in the middle of the road. “If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But I wouldn’t have expected to be shot,” he wrote.
Paul wrapped his denunciation of the police action in Ferguson inside a critique of “big government”, linking the militarisation of many police forces across the US with the erosion of civil liberties since the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Texas senator Ted Cruz, another Tea Party hero who is likely to run for president in 2016, also criticised the police action, honing in on the detention of a number of journalists during the protests. “Reporters should never be detained – a free press is too important – simply for doing their jobs,” he said on Facebook.
One reason for Obama’s reticence is that he has become such a polarising figure in a country where racial and political divisions have started to mirror one another.
As Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler noted earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans have increasingly separate perceptions of racial issues.
In 1985, Republicans and Democrats were almost identical in their view of a New York subway shooting, where Bernhard Goetz shot four African-American youths who he claimed were going to mug him. A decade later, the OJ Simpson verdict divided black and white Americans, but there were only 9 percentage points between Republicans and Democrats on the issue.
By 2013, however, when Neighbourhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman walked free after shooting dead black teenager Trayvon Martin, 68 per cent of Democrats were unhappy with the verdict, compared to 20 per cent of Republicans.
By this year, even the nomination of 12 Years a Slave for an Academy Award was polarising opinion along party lines, with 53 per cent of Democrats wanting the film to win, compared to just 15 per cent of Republicans.
So Obama, who first came to national attention with a speech calling for an end to racial and political divisions in America, cannot say anything about race relations today for fear of making things worse.
Hillary Clinton, who is on the loose across the US, promoting her memoir and sniping at Obama’s foreign policy, has no such excuse.