Not such a great holiday: President Barack Obama follows through on a swing while golfing on the island of Martha's Vineyard.

Not such a great holiday: President Barack Obama follows through on a swing while golfing on the island of Martha's Vineyard. Photo: AP

Barack Obama took time out from his holiday to address the nation on two complex and violent crises – one in Iraq, one in Ferguson, in the suburbs of St Louis, Missouri, a town has looked much like an occupied territory since a white cop shot a young black man dead at lunchtime last Saturday.

Obama had been criticised for his relative silence on the protests and riots, and on the heavy-handed police response since, and he chose delicate words to address the issue now.

“While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving into that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos. It undermines rather than advances justice,” he said.

National Guard troops arrive at a mall complex that serves as staging for the police in Ferguson, Missouri.

National Guard troops arrive at a mall complex that serves as staging for the police in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Reuters

“So, to a community in Ferguson that is rightly hurting and looking for answers, let me call once again for us to seek some understanding rather than simply holler at each other. Let’s seek to heal rather than to wound each other.”


As he spoke National Guard troops as well as local community leaders and clergy members were arriving in Ferguson in the hope of stilling the violence that peaked on Sunday night with police using tear-gas and smoke grenades to repel rioters armed with Molotov cocktails and even guns.

It was not one of Obama’s best performances but a sad truth of Obama’s presidency is that he does not seem to like discussing race in America.

Protesters face off with police after tear gas was fired at crowds in Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday night.

Protesters face off with police after tear gas was fired at crowds in Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday night. Photo: Reuters

Obama became a star of the Democratic Party with his speech at the 2004 party convention, when he addressed those who sought to divide the nation, telling them, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America.”

The speech electrified the party and began Obama’s march to the White House. Once in office though Obama discovered that his contributions to any racial discussion could inflame passions rather than calm them.

In 2009 the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after he was spotted trying to force his own jammed front door. Obama’s observation that the arrest was stupid provoked sustained outrage from a conservative media that was wedded to the idea that he was a black president before he was the President. In the end Obama was forced to invite the officer and the professor to the White House for what became known as the “beer summit” in the hope of returning the national debate to his healthcare reforms.

After Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old boy was shot dead in his father’s neighbourhood in 2012 by a neighbourhood watch volunteer Obama observed that if he had a son he might have looked like Martin. Again there was outrage. In his essay Fear of a Black President, Ta-Nehisi Coates observed that after Obama’s remarks the general sympathy expressed by conservative media for Martin and his family evaporated and many began trying to portray the boy as a thug. Martin’s death became another weapon to be wielded in the culture wars.

Similarly two days after Brown’s death Fox News host Bill O’Reilly demanded in a teaser for his show, “Will black America speak out against the looting in St. Louis?” (As though black America was a person who might be roused from grief to take a call from an angry Irish-American to answer some tough questions.)

Those who really want to know what Obama thinks of the dumb and occasionally ugly handling of the riots in Ferguson by local authorities might do better listening to his Attorney General, Eric Holder, another black man in high office who wears the scars of the culture wars.

“Tell them to remove the damn tanks,” Holder told his deputies last Thursday according to a Wall Street Journal report. Holder, and presumably the president, was furious at the military-style response of the local police, who flooded the streets with armoured cars and officers in combat gear training assault rifles on protesters.

And on Monday afternoon Holder fired a shot across the bow of the local police force by way of press release.

“The selective release of sensitive information that we have seen in this case so far is troubling to me,” Holder he said in the statement. “No matter how others pursue their own separate inquiries, the Justice Department is resolved to preserve the integrity of its investigation.”

This appears to be a response to a detail leaked from the St Louis County medical examiner's report that 18-year-old Michael Brown had "marijuana in his system" when he was shot dead after tussling with policeman who accosted him for jaywalking.

Nearly every decision local police have made since has exacerbated tension. No ambulance was called for the dead man and his body lay in the road for over four hours. His family was turned away from the scene by hostile police when they arrived.

With the protesters and the military-style police facing off on the streets a video of a white officers yelling at the largely black crowd, “Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!"

Calm was briefly restored to the area after the state governor pulled the local police force off the job and replaced it with the Missouri State Highway Patrol. This force is lead by Ron Johnson, a local African-American who removed the tanks and assault rifles and walked among the crowd exchanging handshakes and hugs.

The local police undermined that calm the following morning, again. The department had been directed to release the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown. They named Darren Wilson at a press conference, but they also announced that Brown was the suspect in a robbery that occurred shortly before the shooting.

This twist infuriated those on the streets, especially as the police themselves said the robbery had nothing to do with the incident and Wilson at the time did not even know it had taken place.

Today their story has changed again. Local police are saying that Wilson knew about the robbery and thought he saw Brown carrying stolen cigars.

Holder will tomorrow fly to St Louis to oversee a federal investigation into the incident while a grand jury will decide whether or not Wilson should be charged with any crime. Protesters have declared they will not leave the streets until he is arrested.

The softly-softly approach led by Johnson has collapsed, and rather than being watched over by military-style police, Ferguson is now being patrolled by the actual military in the form of the National Guard.

Obama has returned to what is left of his summer holidays in Martha’s Vineyard from where he will take regular briefings on the security situation in Ukraine, Iraq and Ferguson, Missouri.