A group of seven black and Latino activists and community organizers from Ferguson and across the country who met with President Obama and other top officials on Monday said they appreciated the administration's time and commitment — but that they were hardly satisfied.
The meeting was held at the White House a week after the unrest in the St. Louis suburb that was triggered by the announcement that officer Darren Wilson would not be charged with Mike Brown's death. But the president and representatives of the protesters agreed that the meeting was not just about Ferguson.
Obama called the meeting with the young activists "powerful." On the same day he announced "concrete steps" to address the deepening distrust between communities of color and law enforcement, including the creation of a task force entrusted with drawing up recommendations for police best practices, a review of the controversial 1033 program that has enabled billions worth of military equipment to be transferred to law enforcement, and new community policing initiatives.
The president dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder — the highest ranking administration official to set foot in Ferguson so far — to meet with law enforcement officials across the country, and also announced expanded funding for police training, and for some 50,000 body cameras to be worn by officers.
"There have been commissions before, there have been task forces, there have been conversations, and nothing happens," Obama said in his remarks following the meeting. "This time will be different. And part of the reason this time will be different is because the President of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is really different."
The activists who met with Obama called the meeting "historic," but they also pushed back against some of the administration's suggestions and presented their own list of demands for "tangible" change. They also rejected some of Obama's comments following the looting and arsons last week, which they said "criminalized" their movement.
Obama condemned the "criminal acts" that followed the announcement of the grand jury's decision, and said he had no "sympathy" for those destroying "your own communities."
"We explained that most violence in our community is coming from the police department, and something needs to be done about it," Brittany Packnett, a member of the Ferguson Commission who was also at the meeting with the president, said in response.
The activists demanded "some truth-telling" from the president, Ashley Yates, an organizer with Millennial Activists United and one of the leaders of the Ferguson protests said in a call with reporters following the meeting. The activists asked the president "to be real about the situation that we're facing, to be real about the reasons why people have been out there for 115 days," Yates said. "A lot of people have been awakened to the fact that our lives don't really hold value in this American society."
Promises and Demands
While welcoming the steps outlined by the president, activists said they were just that — small steps — and that more serious policy reform was needed in order to instill an even more challenging "change of thought process," as Yates put it.
For instance, the group said that the promise of more body cameras would hardly change the reality of police violence, and that the 1033 program needed to be "eradicated," not merely reviewed.
"We need real accountability," T-Dubb-O, a St. Louis hip-hop artists and activist who was at the meeting said on the call. "A camera is only gonna provide a game tape of me being murdered."
Yates pointed to the on-camera deaths of John Crawford, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice as evidence that video "does not save us from police brutality. "And it doesn't even save us from being denied justice," she added. "It has not stopped them from killing us."
'We need real accountability. A camera is only gonna provide a game tape of me being murdered.'
As for the multi-billion 1033 program — which Obama said he will sign review via executive order to make sure "that we're not building a militarized culture inside our local law enforcement," — activists said they found it "unbelievable" that such a review did not already exist.
And they said they want the military equipment gone from police departments altogether.
"[The review] is nice but we still have information that there are approximately 400,000 pieces of military equipment spread out throughout the US right now, including 5,000 Humvees, which I can say from personal experience are very intimidating," Yates said. "It's a form of psychological torture to walk down your street and see Humvees… We know that this is a program that doesn't actually work."
Activists also asked the administration for better accountability — demanding transparency on the number of victims of police killings, and truly independent investigations of fatal police encounters.
While there are unofficial tallies of the number of Americans — and especially minorities —killed by police, getting an exact number is nearly impossible, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed Tuesday.
The paper compared FBI records to data from 105 of the country's largest police agencies and found that, between 2007 and 2012 alone, more than 550 police killings went unaccounted for. But advocates against police impunity have long known these types of shootings are overlooked, and called for an overhaul of law enforcement's obligations for accountability to the federal government and the general public.
"We told the president and all of his colleagues that we need to make sure that we're mandating reporting of police precincts the same way that we mandate reporting of schools for example," Jose Lopez, an organizer with the social justice group Make the Road New York, said after the meeting.
"How many lives are taken by law enforcement annually?" he asked. "This data is being voluntarily reported. It shouldn't be. Everyone should have the right to know how many folks lose their lives at the hands of police officers and law enforcement agents."
The group also asked for a better system to ensure accountability. They want local district attorneys removed from the job of holding police accountable, preferring instead the appointment of special prosecutors tasked with prosecuting officers. That issue has been particularly contentious in Ferguson, where from the start protesters accused St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch of doing everything in his power to avoid indicting Wilson — an effort protesters say is consistent with McCulloch's long history of exonerating officers accused of crimes.
"How can we fully trust police to investigate other police especially when they are walking around wearing 'I am Darren Wilson' paraphernalia?" T-Dubb-O said. "The DOJ must encourage independent prosecutions and hold these police departments accountable."
But merely throwing money at the problem won't cut it, he added. "We need accountability and it's not gonna come from $262 million of taxpayer dollars to arm them with cameras, especially when our schools are unaccredited and underfunded," he added. "This should already be a standard issued police equipment item at the local level, especially when municipalities are raising 40 percent of their annual income with traffic stops."
Instead, the panel of organizers asked that money be reinvested in vulnerable communities themselves rather than poured into law enforcement. They seek funds for community-based solutions to policing issues, educational programs, and alternatives to incarceration.
"What we have seen for decades in our country is an investment and incentivizing of criminalization, of clamping down, of militarization, and police occupation and repression in our neighborhoods," said Philip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders, one of the social justice groups invited to the White House. "And what we see over and over… is that this way of policing does not work."
"The definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing and expect a different result," he added. "Why not put the money where the solutions are?"
Meeting with the group, President Obama promised to deliver real change before he leaves office in two years. To start, Holder, who has so far been the face of the administration's response to Ferguson, announced Monday that in the coming days the DOJ will release new guidelines to limit racial profiling by federal law enforcement.
"The new guidance will codify our commitment to the very highest standards of fair and effective policing," Holder said Monday before he was briefly interrupted by protesters. Some members of the audience held signs that said "No Justice, No Peace," and "Eric Holder Do Your Job."
"This whole emphasis on this issue was born of a tragedy but it presents this nation with an opportunity," the attorney general said later, during a meeting with law enforcement officials. "It's incumbent on all of us to seize that opportunity."
But the group of activists that met with the president wanted the victims of police profiling and violence — particularly black and young people most directly affected by law enforcement's bias against them, the real "experts" on the issue, as the activists said — to play a larger role in any of those conversations.
"You have to allow the people who are affected by this militarization and police brutality to define their oppression so that we can actually define the problem correctly," Yates said. The meeting with Obama was somewhat "uplifting" she added, but hardly enough.
"He told us that he was proud of us; he spoke to us from a very real place as a former community organizer," she said. "He told us that he understands how hard the work is and that some of these steps may seem small to us, which they do… Steps have to lead to something else."
The activists want facts, not gestures, Yates added. Obama's absence from Ferguson was criticized early on, but the activists said they don't particularly care at this point whether the president visits. White House officials said this week there are no plans for the president to head to St. Louis anytime soon — and Yates said that would be "too little too late" anyway.
"What we need to see now is him using the power of his position, the power of the highest office in the land, to enact some real change," Yates said. "We have been on the ground making the changes that we can in our communities, but these are high level changes that we need to see. These are systemic issues and we need systemic solutions for them."
"We need policies, and we need the backing of our black president to say that this is a racial issue and that he stands behind us," she added. "We don't need him to come and put boots on the ground, he should have done that 100 days ago."
The president made no mention of his race during his remarks after the meeting, but protesters said they want recognition that Brown's killing in Ferguson — and dozens of incidents like it across the country — were about race.
"Why is it so difficult for you to display a moment of honesty and reflection to the public about your own blackness?" Tef Poe, a St. Louis rapper and leader of the Ferguson protests wrote in a scathing open letter to Obama this week.
"[In St. Louis] you don't have any constitutional rights, you can throw that right out the window," Tef Poe said Tuesday on the call with reporters. "They would put the gun in the president's face."
'We don't need him to come and put boots on the ground, he should have done that 100 days ago.'
Others criticized the president for his overly careful language, even "emotional blindness," in addressing the problem. "When any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated fairly, that's a problem for all of us," Obama said Monday.
But protesters in Ferguson say the point is that people are treated unfairly — and it's a recognition of that reality they most wanted from the president.
"He's the first African-American president of the United States; he needs to use that office and that seat to not just have a State of the Union and tie this issue in with a bunch of other issues," T-Dubb-O said. "He needs to make it his own issue… and tell the rest of America that there is an issue."
The president, for his part, said that what most concerned him during the meeting with the young activists was "the degree to which they feel as if they are not heard or that the reality of what they experienced has been denied."
The meeting itself, Yates said, was a sign that the protests were beginning to have an impact.
"This meeting with the president is just an affirmation that this movement is working," she said. "Within four months, 115 days of active resistance, of shouting that black lives matter, they are finally beginning to hear us and we were in the oval office. That is monumental."
But activists were less interested in celebrating the milestone than in looking to the work ahead.
"In order for this to be as historic as even we believe that it could be, we gotta deliver some meaningful policy," Agnew said, adding that he appreciated the president's willingness to talk with organizers. "Until then, we and people around the country are gonna continue to take to the streets, we're gonna continue to disrupt the daily order, we're gonna continue to make sure that business is not happening as usual until something really, really happens for our communities."
People in Ferguson and beyond want to see real change.
"I don't expect much from the same system that has a foot on our throat," Tef Poe said. "We can't fix 400 years of oppression in 115 days… All we can do is continue to work."
Yates was even more specific in her demand for results.
"I wanna be able to refresh my browser 28 hours later and not see another headline that a black, unarmed, citizen has been gunned down at the hands of those that are supposed to protect and serve us," she said, referring to thestatistic that a black man is killed by police or vigilantes almost daily. That is a tangible result to me."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi