A Year After Ferguson, Obama Tells NPR He Feels 'Great Urgency'

Aug 9, 2015
Originally published on August 10, 2015 8:27 am

A year after Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparking weeks of often violent protests in the city, the country is still struggling to deal with the issues the shooting, and others like it, have brought to the fore.

In an interview at the White House with President Obama, part of which is being broadcast today, NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep asked whether political considerations in his first term prevented the first black president from properly addressing the race issue.

"That I don't buy," Obama responded.

"I think it's fair to say that if, in my first term, Ferguson had flared up, as president of the United States, I would have been commenting on what was happening in Ferguson," he said.

"Here's one thing I will say: that I feel a great urgency to get as much done as possible. And there's no doubt that after over 6 1/2 years on this job, I probably have an easier time juggling a lot of different issues. And it may be that my passions show a little bit more, just because I have been around this track now for a while."

Rasheen Aldridge, the 21-year-old director of Youth Activist United, is also the youngest member of the Ferguson Commission, a panel that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon appointed. Asked about the president's response to race issues in the wake of the shooting, Aldridge tells NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday that at first he was skeptical.

In the early days, he said, "the president, in my opinion, didn't really step up to the plate."

"But I remember when I was invited to the White House and he sat in the room with me and other activists and we talked about race and we talked about change that we wanted to see," Aldridge said, "I could see in the president's face that he was tired of having this conversation — that he really wanted to have some change happen."

"I think after Ferguson, the president, he's been hitting hard on race recently. And I appreciate it. I understand sometimes it is tough," Aldridge said.

For those who may not remember the chronology of events that began in August 2014, St. Louis Public Radio has an excellent immersive retrospective here.

USA Today reports that a witness to the shooting, Dionne Henderson, still isn't sure what she believes about the incident. The newspaper writes:

"Part of her believes Wilson, who is white, shot in self defense to protect himself, but Henderson, who is black, also mourns the loss of an 18 year old and feels unsettled when she recalls his body lying in the hot sun for hours just outside her Canfield Green apartment. She is sure of one thing, however: She wants to move out of Canfield Green Apartments, as many of her neighbors have done, before the Aug. 9 anniversary of Brown's death.

" 'I want to move out because soon it will be the 9th and I know people are going to be back here. I'll have to take back roads to get home,' said Henderson, a retired bus driver who has lived in the apartment complex for two years. 'In a way, I'm proud that all kinds of people can stick together and protest. But, people were also out there so-called protesting, robbing stores and stuff like that. That's the sad part.' "

In the Aug. 10 issue of The New Yorker, Officer Darren Wilson speaks out on the incident for the first time since November, when a grand jury declined to indict him in the shooting. Wilson says he has never read the Justice Department report that was issued in March, which found his actions are not "prosecutable violations" but nonetheless pointed to practices within the Ferguson Police Department that "both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes."

"I don't have any desire," Wilson told the magazine. "I'm not going to keep living in the past about what Ferguson did. It's out of my control."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One year ago today, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. In the weeks that followed, the world came to know the town of Ferguson, Mo. That killing gave rise to a protest movement that spread far beyond Ferguson. One of the organizers of that movement is Rasheen Aldridge. He's director of Young Activists United in Ferguson. We spoke with him last fall when all of this was happening, and we called him up again to ask what has changed in the past year.

RASHEEN ALDRIDGE: I think what's been the most beautiful thing is the young people that have stepped up. We call it the Black Lives Matter movement, this new group of folks who are organizing and now not being quiet or not just going with the status quo when something's not right.

MARTIN: Aldridge is 21 years old and is the youngest member of the Ferguson Commission. This is a panel appointed by Missouri's governor to look into the unrest that followed Michael Brown's death and the conditions it brought to light. Next month, that commission is due to release a report with recommendations for social change. We asked Rasheen Aldridge to give us a preview.

ALDRIDGE: Honestly, the recommendations that will be coming out are the recommendations from the community. The commissioners are just figureheads. In these meetings, it's the community that's voicing their concerns. So I think the final report on September 15 - I think it's going to be something that the community definitely will enjoy and hopefully act upon.

MARTIN: I imagine you've sat in on many meetings over the course of the past year. Are there a couple of issues that keep coming up?

ALDRIDGE: Our top - our very top, I think, two recommendations are around municipal courts and policing, and it's an issue that - it's dear to a lot of people - it's dear to a lot of people's hearts right now. But it is a lot of other powerful recommendations around economic mobility and childhood well-being.

MARTIN: You did reference the municipal courts. The state of Missouri passed a law that essentially caps the amount of money that cities can collect from tickets that they issue to individuals. Has that made a difference? Do you think that will make a difference?

ALDRIDGE: I think it's a start. One of the recommendations I know that the commission is offering is to kind of consolidate and get rid of some of these municipal courts. In St. Louis County, there's about 90-something different municipalities. Some of these municipalities cannot survive if they do not abuse the community, taking so much money out the hands of the working people in that community. And if they're not really needed or if they're just going to continue to abuse them, let's get rid of them. Let's mold them into others. Like, right now, people are still getting ticketed for no reason. People are still, you know, driving down Lucas and Hunt and being pulled over for no reason and getting these unnecessary tickets - not one, but many. But if we look now and look how we can start to consolidate these, it's not doing only justice to the community; it is doing justice to these municipalities. Then we can have real relationship-building and not just pulling them over because they have to write a ticket, because they have to get quota - because if they don't get quota, then they get in trouble.

MARTIN: So much of the Black Lives Matter movement began on the streets, began on the streets with those protests that we saw in the aftermath of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson. Are you expecting there to be remembrances today? Are you expecting there to be protests marking this anniversary?

ALDRIDGE: Definitely. We remember Michael Brown every day, but today is even more special because it is the one year. And today, on August 9, we stand together and say no more. We're going to continue to let the people know that black lives matter. We have to keep fighting for Michael Brown. We have to keep fighting for Tamir Rice. We have to keep fighting for Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson. We have to keep fighting.

MARTIN: President Obama spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep this past week, and he said this about how he's taken on race issues at this point in his presidency. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's no doubt that after over six and a half years on this job, I probably have an easier time juggling a lot of different issues, and it may be that my passions show a little bit more.

MARTIN: The president there, suggesting that it's taken several years for him to be able to fully embrace the issue of race relations in this country in the way that he has been. Are you satisfied with how the president addressed the situation in Ferguson, in particular, and race relations more broadly?

ALDRIDGE: At the very beginning when everything in Ferguson happened, to be honest, I wasn't quite happy with how the president was handling race. The president didn't really, in my opinion, step up to the plate. In the early days, he was, you know, very - the protesters are good, you know, peaceful. But it then went to, you know, we must keep property safe and police safe over keeping the people in the community safe. But I remember when I was invited to the White House and he sat in the room with me and other activists, I can see in the president's face, in his eyes, that he really was tired of having this conversation and that he really wanted some change to happen. He wanted to hear less stories of what was going on in Ferguson and less stories of our personal issues, but really what do we want to see change? What is it that needs to be changed in the community that will have a positive impact? And I think, after Ferguson, I mean, the president has been - he's been hitting hard on race recently, and I appreciate it. And I understand it is tough, and he's supposed to be a lame duck. But he's taken this issue seriously. And hopefully before he leaves the presidency or the White House that he would tell people that are coming into office, the fellow Democrats, that this is an issue that is - should be one of the top five things that we need to be talking about as well.

MARTIN: Rasheen Aldridge, he's a community organizer in Ferguson, Mo. and the director of Young Activists United. Thanks so much for talking with us.

ALDRIDGE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You can hear more of Steve Inskeep's interview with President Obama this week on Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.