President Obama addressed the media within one hour of the Grand Jury’s decision regarding indictment of police officer Robert McCulloch. Michael Brown was an African American college student with no criminal record and no firearms. He was accused of robbing a convenience store on 9th August 2014 and subsequently shot dead by police officer Robert McCulloch on this account in Ferguson (Goodman and Gonzalez “Not One More”). The case created an uproar surrounding the issues of race and police violence. After months of protest, the Grand Jury dismissed the case of officer McCulloch’s indictment on the grounds of the absence of a probable cause for indictment. In fear of subsequent future protests, Obama gave a speech at the white house in front on national and international media to encourage citizens to engage solely in peaceful protests and law enforcement officers to behave in a supportive manner. In fear of subsequent protests, on 24th November 2014, he urged American citizens to protest in a peaceful manner and uphold the rule of the law (Chapell). Additionally, he asked law enforcement agencies not to discriminate on the basis of race and the need for better training for police officers. Obama’s discussion was significant for a multitude of reasons.
Among the many reasons stressing the importance of Obama’s speech, the urgency with which it was delivered within an hour of the Grand Jury’s decision highlights its significance in maintaining civil order in America. First and foremost, soon after the killing of Michael Brown, protests surfaced in St. Louis Suburb of Ferguson (Goodman and Gonzalez “Armed w/”). These protests were largely peaceful and non-violent. However, Ferguson cops used military grade equipment to counter these protests (Goodman and Gonzalez “Armed w/”). The shooting of an innocent African American had already enraged the local community to the point of protest prior to the judgment. The nation was outraged when military-grade equipment was used on peaceful protesters, significantly heightening the possibility of nationwide civil disorder on accounts of race and justice (Goodman and Gonzalez “Armed w/”). The national climate was fragile enough at the time when the Grand Jury decided not to punish the perpetrator of the crime. This created the possibility of tremendous uproar from American public which could turn violent given the anger bubbling from the jury’s decision. To subdue this anger, Obama had to immediately address the nation or risk facing civil disorder of a huge magnitude. Two additional factors clearly highlight the importance of the speech. Firstly, the President’s emphasis on protests in a peaceful manner highlights the nation’s situation where some form of protest was expected throughout the country post the decision. The President was merely trying to tackle the violence aspect of these protests. Secondly, nature of protests since the day of the speech including an element of considerable violence reveals how Obama’s concerns were not unfounded along with a certain ineffectiveness of the speech. Lastly, the issue of unfair treatment of people of color via the criminal justice system was rising in importance. Michael’s shooting and the subsequent decision was part of this larger issue and the jury’s verdict burst the bubble of patience of the average American, threatening national unrest.
Obama’s speech though addressed to the media had a wide target audience which can be segregated into different levels. The primary audience of the speech were the citizens of Ferguson who were enraged by the Grand Jury’s decision and contemplating protesting against it along with the law enforcement officers who would find themselves tackling these citizens. Obama’s speech clearly outlined the anger felt by some after the Jury’s verdict and the ways in which this subset of the Ferguson crowd would choose to express their disappointment. The secondary audience of the discussion was prospective protestors and their law enforcement counterparts throughout the nation. There was a strong possibility of nationwide protests and hence, the President sought to reach out to both groups involved in the same. The tertiary audience of the speech was much wider. Obama spoke directly to communities and all law enforcement agencies including their training agencies. He urged communities and law enforcement officers to “get to know each other better” and also discussed about the possibility of better training for officers (Chapell). These messages would be relayed to the target audience through the media covering the speech and their reactions to the Grand Jury’s decision. Thus, the media was also part of the target audience of the message. The wide target audience base created some obstacles in the speech’s effectiveness.
President Obama’s speech suffered from certain shortcomings though it also had some distinct advantages. One of the core barriers to the effectiveness of the speech were audience values about staunch unfairness and bias that had dictated the legal treatment of the case from the start along with the racial prejudice which led to the murder of an innocent boy. These values had infused significant anger among the public which would be difficult to dilute regardless of Obama’s charisma. The situation also posed another barrier to the speech’s success. As mentioned earlier, the speech was delivered within an hour of the Grand Jury’s decision perceived as unfair by majority of the public. While the attempt was to subdue plausible violent protests as soon as possible, enough time had not elapsed to allow the public to suppress their anger and listen to his arguments in a rational manner. The specific event, namely, the decision of the Grand Jury, had evoked extreme anger and violence and the situation wasn’t such that words could mitigate the negative emotions. On the flip side, President Obama enjoyed the advantage of credibility on account of both his likeability but more importantly because of his belonging the subordinated race in the trial. Obama knew from his own experience that bias was still evident in American society. However, despite this knowledge he urged the public to maintain peace and uphold the rule of the law. His expertise rose from his belonging to people of color and sharing their pain but simultaneously recognizing the importance of non-violent expression which worked to his advantage. Keeping these barriers and advantages in mind, the President adopted certain strategies to persuade the target audience to adopt his views.
President Obama’s speech combined a mix of logos, pathos, and ethos. He relied predominantly on the use of rational argument when he said that “It’s an outcome that, either way, was going to be the subject of intense disagreement… There are Americans who agree with it and there are those who are extremely disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction (Chapell).” He added that “We need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make (Chapell).” The former statement sought persuasion through the use of logic while the latter relied on cold hard facts of the courts implementing the rule of law in modern democracies. In addition to this strategy, Obama used a narrative strategy. The story started from the death of Michael Brown to the possibility of its leading to incredible change. This strategy was mingled with an appeal to audience sympathy by urging people to “honor the wishes of Michael’s parents” who “had lost more than anyone” by refusing to engage in violence and destroying public property which would make Michael’s death vain (Chapell). In addition to appealing to emotions, President Obama relied on the use of credibility to persuade the audience. Obama is an image of trustworthiness and charisma which make him a highly effective speaker, and this speech was no exception to the same. In addition to these facets, Obama’s trump card was his belonging to the same race which was at the receiving end of police bias. Obama made it a point to identify himself with the victim and his race rather than law enforcement in the speech. He mentions how he, being a man of color, has witnessed a significant improvement in the treatment of people of color and acknowledged how there was still a long way to go. By identifying himself as one of the suffering, he built considerable credibility to persuade the audience to behave in a peaceful and civil manner.
Despite the efficacy of certain persuasive strategies and some advantages while delivering the speech, President Obama failed to persuade majority of the audience to his point of view. This is evident from the protests, both peaceful and violent, in over 150 cities in U.S. after Obama’s speech to counter and restrict the same (Goodman and Gonzalez). Obama used rational arguments when discussing the way ahead after Grand Jury’s trial but it was ineffective at overcoming the barrier of values and strong emotions. This is because rational argument does not work well when connected to fundamental issues and strong emotions (Walton 27). Rational argument is also ineffective in case of strongly held beliefs in the short-term, given the situational barrier Obama’s speech faced (Walton 27). Secondly, the credibility strategy used in Obama’s discussion on peaceful protests was effective given his likeability and trustworthiness advantage to a certain extent in ensuring numerous peaceful demonstrations in the form of protest although it could not counter the barrier of strong emotions which turned the protests violent after a point. Narrative strategy, despite its attempts to incite emotions in favor of Obama’s argument to accept the rule of the law, was the most ineffective strategy used in the speech. The strategy countered Obama’s credibility advantage as a man of color urging for a muted reaction to Brown’s killing. Additionally, the strategy did not overcome the barrier of anger and hatred but instead reinforced it by repeating Brown’s father’s message of not letting his son die in vain. Narrative strategy reinforced values pertaining to justice and strong emotions contrary to the message of the speaker further making the speech ineffective. Overall, the persuasive strategies did not counter the barriers to the extent of achieving Obama’s goals of the speech.
Chapell, Bill. “Obama Discusses Ferguson Jury Decision In Michael Brown Case.” NPR.
NPR, 24 Nov. 2014. Web. 1 May 2015.
Goodman, Amy and Juan Gonzalez. “Armed w/ Military-Grade Weapons, Missouri Police
Crack Down on Protests over Michael Brown Shooting.” Democracy Now. Democracynow.org, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 1 May 2015.
Goodman, Amy and Juan Gonzalez. “Not One More Darren Wilson, Not One More Mike
Brown”: National Protests Continue Ferguson Struggle.” Democracy Now. Democracynow.org, 1 Dec. 2014. Web. 1 May 2015.
Walton, Douglas. The Place of Emotion in Argument. USA: The Pennsylvania State
University, 2010. Print.