Obama gestured wanly toward the need to respect the grand jury’s decision and to protest peacefully. “We are a nation built on the rule of law. And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make,” he said. But his tone of voice and body language unmistakably conveyed his disagreement, if not disgust, with that decision. “There are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction,” he said. Understandable, so long as one ignores the evidence presented to the grand jury. The testimony of a half-dozen black observers at the scene demolished the early incendiary reports that Wilson attacked Brown in cold blood and shot Brown in his back when his hands were up. Those early witnesses who had claimed gratuitous brutality on Wilson’s part contradicted themselves and were in turn contradicted by the physical evidence and by other witnesses, who corroborated Wilson’s testimony that Brown had attacked him and had tried to grab his gun. (Minutes before, the nearly 300-pound Brown had thuggishly robbed a shopkeeper of a box of cigars; Wilson had received a report of that robbery and a description of Brown before stopping him.) Obama should have briefly reiterated the grounds for not indicting Wilson and applauded the decision as the product of a scrupulously thorough and fair process. He should have praised the jurors for their service and courage in following the evidence where it led them. And he should have concluded by noting that there is no fairer criminal justice system in the world than the one we have in the United States.
Instead, Obama reprimanded local police officers in advance for their presumed overreaction to the protests: “I also appeal to the law enforcement officials in Ferguson and the region to show care and restraint in managing peaceful protests that may occur. . . . They need to work with the community, not against the community, to distinguish the handful of people who may use the grand jury’s decision as an excuse for violence . . . from the vast majority who just want their voices heard around legitimate issues in terms of how communities and law enforcement interact.” Such skepticism about the ability of the police to maintain the peace appropriately was unwarranted at the time and even more so in retrospect; the forces of law and order didn’t fire a single shot last night. Nor did they inflict injury, despite having been fired at themselves. Missouri governor Jay Nixon has been under attack for days for having authorized a potential mobilization of the National Guard—as if the August rioting didn’t more than justify such a precaution. Any small business owner facing another wave of violence would have been desperate for such protection and more. Though Nixon didn’t actually call up the Guard last night, his prophylactic declaration of a state of emergency proved prescient.