As protesters around the country took to the streets to express their outrage over the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, lawmakers across the political spectrum urged calm — but offered few solutions or prescriptions for the long-simmering frustrations of the black community.
Many asked simply for restraint on the part of demonstrators and expressed sympathy for the family of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by police officer Darren Wilson that has prompted a nationwide examination of racial biases in policing and the justice system.
"However disappointed we may be in the decision by the grand jury in St. Louis County, we must hold the family of Michael Brown in our hearts and reject the acts of violence and destruction that detract from the efforts of those who continue to peacefully protest this tragedy,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a statement.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a prominent organizer in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, said on a radio show last week — before the grand jury decision was released — that he believed the outcome would mark a turning point for black Americans agitating for change.
“When we were beaten on that bridge in Selma, people couldn’t take it, for they saw it, they heard about it, they read about it, and it lit a sense of righteous indignation,” Lewis said, referring to the iconic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery where peaceful demonstrators were beaten by police. “When we see a miscarriage of justice in Ferguson, they’re going to have the same reaction they had towards Selma.”
Still, on Monday night, after the decision was made, Lewis called for peace in lieu of rage.
“I know this [is] hard. I know this is difficult. Do not succumb to the temptations of violence. There is a more powerful way,” he tweeted. “It’s good to disturb the order of things, to show signs of discontent, but it must be peaceful, orderly, and disciplined.”
Others were even more reticent in their comments and declined to criticize the grand jury’s decision.
“The rule of law is something that we have to put our faith in,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, at a public appearance in Jersey City. “There was a grand jury, they went through a process, evidence was presented for a jury and they came to that conclusion. I respect that conclusion.”
Booker nonetheless called for “massive reform” of the criminal justice system, although what such reform would entail remains unclear.
“It is a time for us to come together, whether through peaceful protest, activism, engagement and hard work to advance our country closer to the ideals of equal justice under the law,” Booker added.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, had stronger words and a dimmer view of what she saw as the systematic devaluing of black lives in the eyes of U.S. society.
“This decision seems to underscore an unwritten rule that black lives hold no value; that you may kill black men in this country without consequences or repercussions,” she said in a statement. “This is a frightening narrative for every parent and guardian of black and brown children, and another setback for race relations in America.”
Echoing the sentiment, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., tweeted simply, “Worried for my sons.”
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., offered some of the more comprehensive comments on what was needed after Ferguson, citing in a statement the Justice Department’s efforts to “cultivate community focused, smart policing that rebuilds trust between residents and law enforcement.” He called for more of those tactics, which amount to “ending use of racial profiling and use of excessive force.”
Conyers also spoke of the need for more accountability in the justice system.
“This result underscores the legal hurdles faced in holding the police accountable for abuse of authority and further illustrates the need for major reform in our criminal justice system,” he said of the grand jury’s decision.
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, zeroed in on the social and economic conditions that allowed the unease in Ferguson to fester.
“Michael’s death was tragic, and the months since this tragedy have marked a challenging time in Ferguson and across Missouri,” said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in a statement. “Together, I know we can move forward and heal as we work to find better job opportunities in and more investment for challenged communities.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., meanwhile, laid blame on the policies of the “war on drugs,” which he believes vests too much power in the hands of the police, and the “war on poverty” for failing to cure economic blight, as he laid out a series of concrete proposals for reform.
“I will continue to fight to end the racial disparities in drug sentencing. I will continue to fight lengthy, mandatory sentences that prevent judges from using discretion. I will continue to fight to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences,” he wrote in an op-ed in Time.com. “But my hope is that out of tragedy, a preacher or teacher will arise — one who motivates and inspires all of us to discover traits, ambitions, and moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair.”