On the campaign trail, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., largely faced a warm reception as he emerged from relative obscurity to become a promising Democratic presidential contender. But when he addressed a majority-black audience on Sunday afternoon in South Bend, things were markedly different.
This time, Buttigieg wasn’t speaking as a candidate but as the mayor of a city where emotions have run high since a white police officer shot a black man last week and failed to capture the fatal confrontation with his body camera. The town hall meeting, which Buttigieg convened to respond to the rising tensions, descended into chaos as community members shouted their anger and frustration. At times, the mayor struggled to speak amid the interruptions, and he was repeatedly heckled and booed.
“We don’t trust you!” yelled one audience member. “Liar!” yelled another.
The police shooting fallout is the latest example of how thorny questions of race are playing a central role in the Democratic primary, most recently exemplified by backlash over Joe Biden’s remarks about working hand-in-hand with segregationists, and the ongoing debate over reparations. As The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery reported, the shooting of 54-year-old Eric Logan has exposed Buttigieg’s chilly relationship with South Bend’s black community, which could potentially hurt him as he attempts to appeal to black voters on a national scale.
Buttigieg, whose campaign announced the day after the shooting that he had canceled a series of scheduled appearances so that he could stay in South Bend, told reporters after the town hall that he intended to follow up on the suggestions raised by residents at the meeting.
“You can sense the pain, not only around this incident, but around our history, not only around our history as a city, but what’s happening everywhere when it comes to the disempowerment that so many black Americans have felt in relationship to the police,” he said. “And obviously that was expressed in a lot of ways today.”
On Monday, Buttigieg sent a letter to campaign supporters, calling the town hall meeting a “painful but needed conversation.”
“I feel overwhelmed and heartened by the number of people – supporters and critics – who have reached out and made it clear over the past week that they want to join hands and face these problems together,” he wrote.
Though black residents’ frustrations with the South Bend Police Department predate Buttigieg’s tenure, it was clear on Sunday that the mayor’s presidential ambitions had done little to improve matters. At one point, when audience members were asked to be respectful of Buttigieg’s schedule and reminded that his time was limited, outrage erupted.
“You gotta get back to South Carolina like you was yesterday?” one man yelled, referencing Buttigieg’s decision to briefly return to the campaign trail on Saturday so that he could deliver a speech at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention.
Police have said Logan was rifling through cars in an apartment complex’s parking lot in the early hours of June 16 when an officer confronted him. Logan allegedly pulled out a knife, and the officer opened fire. But because the officer failed to turn on his body camera, residents have expressed doubts about the truthfulness of the police department’s version of events, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Buttigieg’s initial response to the shooting was panned by critics. “How’s he handling it?” said Oliver Davis, the longest-serving black member of the South Bend Common Council, told The Post last week. “Well, he talked to the media before the family. He skipped the family vigil, full of black residents. And then he then gave a speech to the police. So, how do you think that went over?”
Another tense moment came Friday, when, after canceling a slew of campaign events, Buttigieg joined protesters at a rally outside the South Bend Police Department. Though some thanked him for showing up, others had a more cynical response. “You [are] running for president and you want black people to vote for you,” one protester told him, according to CBS News. “That’s not going to happen.”
When Buttigieg assured her that he wasn’t asking for her vote, the woman responded, “You’re not going to get it.”
As a candidate, Buttigieg has touted the renewal of South Bend under his watch, describing it as one of the “best-run” cities in the country. But that progress has not been felt equally. As The Post reported last week, 40 percent of black residents still live below the poverty line, and predominantly black neighborhoods have not seen the same rapid rate of economic development found elsewhere. Meanwhile, the mayor has faced criticism over his aggressive redevelopment efforts, which led to the bulldozing of houses in predominantly black and Latino communities in the northwest of the city.
After taking office in 2012, Buttigieg forced out the city’s first black police chief, who had been accused of improperly recording white police officers making racist comments, according to the Times. His handling of police misconduct cases has led to backlash during his tenure, as did the lack of diversity on the police force. Though roughly a quarter of South Bend residents are black, only 5 percent of the police department is African American, according to the South Bend Tribune.
Buttigieg, for his part, acknowledged during Sunday’s town hall that attempts to diversify the police force had been unsuccessful. “I accept responsibility for that,” he said.
Sitting next to the city’s police chief, who is white, in a high school auditorium, Buttigieg listened solemnly for well over an hour as residents took turns airing their frustrations. One community member told him that her 7-year-old grandson was scared of the police. “That is not what’s supposed to happen in America, in Indiana, in 2019,” she said.
Buttigieg told her that he agreed that wasn’t acceptable. “I’m doing everything I know to fix it,” he responded. “Obviously, we are not there yet, but we can’t do it alone. We can’t do it without the community.”
Remaining calm while audience members shouted at him — and, at times, each other — Buttigieg also pledged to do his part to restore the trust between black residents and police, and emphasized that he welcomed community input. He promised transparency and received loud applause when he said that he would ask the Justice Department to review the Logan shooting, and for a special prosecutor to conduct an outside review.
But many in the room expressed skepticism that anything would change. “How can we trust this process?” one local activist asked. “How are we supposed to trust you?”
Speaking to reporters after the town hall, Buttigieg said that he still plans to participate in the first Democratic debates on Thursday in Miami. Asked what African Americans watching at home should think of the contentious atmosphere in South Bend, he replied that he hoped they would see that the city was facing issues of race and policing head on, rather than trying to avoid uncomfortable conversations.
“This problem has to get solved in my lifetime,” he said. “I don’t know of a person or a city that has solved it. But I know that if we do not solve it in my lifetime, it will sink America.”
John Wagner contributed to this story.
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