Preserve, Protect & Defend
Why is it Suddenly Unreasonable to Ask the President for Help?
**Edit**-This piece wouldn’t be possible without a conversation with @bohemianrhapsdy that really challenged my thinking on the issue. Thanks to her for contributing and not letting me off the hook.
Michael Brown, Michael Brown, Michael Brown, Michael Brown, Michael Brown, Michael Brown. One invocation for each of the confirmed gunshots that ripped his body apart. An overabundance of utterances to make up for each time it wasn’t said in police press conferences, Presidential statements, videos of convenience stores and self-aggrandizing media accounts. It is a child’s name, the final reminder of a life’s flame snuffed out by annihilation. Michael Brown. The name hasn’t been said enough.
President Obama is a man who knows the importance of using names. His speech-writing has relied on a comfortable pattern of poignant personal anecdotes from persons affected by the issue at hand. Combined with a comfortable code-switch of Southern and ebonic vernacular, the significant placing of names is a trademark of Presidential speechcraft and often indicates priorities. The relative subordination of Michael Brown’s name to portions of President Obama’s recent speech addressing “rioters” was less an unfortunate circumstance of placement than a deliberate policy aim. The speech was not really about the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death at all. It was mostly about maintaining order and not disrupting the status quo. And it was utterly unsatisfying.
When can we hope to have a real statement from the President on the rampant issues of the interactions of race with police brutality and institutional violence in the United States? The smart answer is probably never. There’s two good years left in the political tank and the tread on the tires of Obama’s political capital seems worn pretty bare. It’s probably a good bet that the commander-in-chief won’t dip any deeper into the litany of names the Michael Browns, Eric Garners, Sean Bells, Oscar Grants and other Black folks whose bodies litter morgues as the victims of the hunger of state-sponsored violence. Inasmuch as the President both reflects and shapes public opinion, the frank disinterest in the Black and Brown bodies gnashed in the maw of our own justice system is representative of a startling public disinterest. But sometimes I wonder—is my desire to hold the President to speak frankly and forcefully on these issues of local enforcement that affect very specific groups of constituents fair?
To many folks, the answer is a firm “no.” As the common refrain goes “Obama is the President of America, not (just) Black America.” Many Obama supporters also cite political expediency, lack of political capital or the fact that he can never appeal to everyone as reasons why Blacks should temper impassioned calls to the President for assistance with “Black issues,” like police brutality, repeated violence at the hands of private armed citizens and the resegregation of inner-cities. I have often uttered the above phrases to myself as a protective mantra to ward off the evil spirits of doubt towards a man and legacy that have helped define a large chunk of my developing social conscience as a young adult in America. Those little crumbs he threw our way about Trayvon Martin and My Brother’s Keeper were prayer beads around which I wound my disquietude as I tried to wait for the moment when something more inspiring would happen. But enlightenment has not come. I have no reason to believe that our samsara under the rule of unjust law will be ended or made significantly better under this President.
Why are the cries for justice and the ability to simply feel safe in Black skin often met with smug dismissal from liberals and staunch Obama supporters? Why shouldn’t we judge the man who ran on the singular ideal of being a transformative candidate on his ability to transform the systems that obstruct us? Why can’t we demand that the elected protector of the Constitution protect our Constitutional rights, especially those of the minority infringed upon by the majority across the country? In Ferguson, Missouri, those who mourn are not only enraged by the actions of a system at which the President is the head; they are also threatened with violence from the same hand that ended Michael Brown’s life. Every round fired into an unarmed Black person and every canister of tear gas fired into crowds of children are body blows to the Constitution. It seems backwards not to expect folks to turn to the elected leader of the entire nation when local and state governments continue to throw the punches.
With authorities in Ferguson behaving in an often erratic and most times downright unjust manner over the past week, now is that time for the President to act decisively. No more ambivalent statements. No more skirting the police brutality and federal-sponsored police militarization that is at the heart of the issue. No more paralysis by way of political expediency. Fairly or not, a leader is measured by the results. When it comes to basic human rights in the country deemed by its defenders to be the greatest ever in the universe, excuses are nothing. A good proportion of this nation already lives in fear of even being seen by or talking to the people tasked with protecting them. When those problems seem to be getting worse and not better, that’s a failure of the leadership.
At the minimum all the folks in Ferguson protesting on streets watered first with Michael Brown’s blood want is a Plan. A ceasefire from police aggressors. A time to mourn and a listening ear to actually try and address their concerns. That’s a good start for those elsewhere who have been impacted by this death and so many others. That’s a good start for those nationwide who fear simply going to the store; not because they may be mugged but just because a policeman could be bored that night. It’s a good start for all who even remotely care about Constitutional rights. That’s what protesters in the Civil Rights Movement sought on Black-specific issues from JFK and LBJ, two Presidents who certainly weren’t relied on to be superhero paragons of the Black race. Those services, the active listening and championing for causes of disenfranchised minorities, are parts of their legacies. If providing these services isn’t the job of the sitting President, what is his job? Those who wish for more out of President Obama may be pegged as malcontents, but isn’t a person seeking or voting for change by definition discontented with the present?