WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama said he has “no sympathy at all for destroying your own communities,” urging protesters in Ferguson to avoid a second night of violence and fight instead for longer-lasting political changes.
Obama’s comments Tuesday in Chicago came as the sun set in Missouri and law enforcement officers — including 1,500 additional National Guard troops — prepared to stop the looting and fires that followed a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in August.
“The frustrations that we’ve seen are not just about a particular incident,” he said. “They have deep roots in many communities of color who have a sense that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly or fairly. That may not be true everywhere and it’s certainly not true for the vast majority of law enforcement officials, but that’s an impression that folks have and it’s not just made up — it’s rooted in realities that have existed in this country for a long time.”
He said Monday night’s protests were “overwhelmingly peaceful,” but said some of the images from Ferguson — including police cars being destroyed and businesses looted — shouldn’t be tolerated.
“There are productive ways of responding and expressing those frustrations, and there are destructive ways of responding,” Obama said. “Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk — that’s destructive and there’s no excuse for it. Those are criminal acts. And people should be prosecuted if they engage in criminal acts.”
The President’s comments came at the beginning of a speech that was focused on immigration. He said he wouldn’t comment on the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Brown.
But Obama said better police training, law enforcement forces that are representative of the communities they serve and more “makes a difference.” He promised regional meetings focused on “building trust in our communities” between police and residents, and vowed to work with protesters who want to make political changes.
“For the overwhelming majority of people who just feel frustrated and pained because they get a sense that maybe some communities aren’t treated fairly or some individuals aren’t seen as as worthy as others, I understand that and I want to work with you,” he said.
Obama echoed Attorney General Eric Holder, who said Tuesday afternoon that peaceful and non-violent protests have a history of forcing change in the United States, and called it “heartening” that some leaders of the protests tried to stop the violence that broke out Monday night.
“I really embrace those who have been proactively intervening to stop acts of violence within their midst and I encourage them to continue exercising this important leadership. I know this is not an easy thing to do,” Holder said.
The Justice Department has launched civil rights investigations into both the Brown shooting and the Ferguson Police Department’s relations with minorities. Officials from the department have been in the area since August working to ease tensions between protesters and police and offering training to local law enforcement.
Amid concerns about a second night of violence, Holder said the Justice Department remains in contact with leaders of the protests.
He also said the department will conduct a review in the wake of Monday night “so that we can develop strategies for identifying and isolating the criminal elements from peaceful protestors.”
Before departing the White House for Chicago, Obama was briefed by Holder on both the situation in Ferguson and longer-term efforts to improve relations between citizens and police, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.
Top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett spoke twice — Monday night and Tuesday morning — with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, and has also briefed Obama. Jarrett and Holder also held a conference call with civil rights leaders.
Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson, meanwhile, held a call with Missouri officials to coordinate their response in Ferguson, while White House staffers discussed other cities’ responses with mayors across the country.
After a St. Louis County prosecutor announced that the grand jury had decided against indicting Officer Darren Wilson on Monday night, Obama said protesters’ anger is “understandable” but urged them to remain peaceful. As he spoke, though, some of the hundreds in the streets of Ferguson had looted local stores, destroyed police cruisers and set fires — and police responded by firing tear gas into crowds.
“I think the images that were captured last night were all the more reason the President felt compelled to go out and speak and urge calm,” Schultz said.
Obama deflected a question about whether he would visit Ferguson. Asked on Tuesday about travel to the area, Schultz said Obama would decide once “things calm down a little bit.”