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Ben Carson visits Ferguson with a call to get past race

Carson visited Ferguson Friday. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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ST. LOUIS -- Joined by Ferguson, Missouri's mayor, Ben Carson spent Friday morning in the place where America's new conversation on race and policing began. The neurosurgeon and presidential candidate got a guided tour of the small suburb, including the intersection where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in August 2014, then headed to an St. Louis airport hotel for a roundtable with activists, pastors, and politicians.

"I heard more than one time how the thing that really inflamed the community was the fact that Michael Brown's body laid out on the street for four hours," said Carson. "I think a lot of people understood that he had done bad things, but his body didn't have to be disrespected. I heard also that people need to learn how to respect authority."

Carson was the first declared candidate of either party to visit the city, though Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held a "listening session" before announcing his bid, and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig made a visit before launching his. Unlike Paul, Carson kept the roundtable -- and the tour -- closed to press. According to Mayor James Knowles, who has invited any and all contenders to Ferguson, Carson's tour included a stop at the city's only coffee shop, lunch at an Italian restaurant, and conversations with the people who happened by. The mayor also tried to connect Carson with Brown's father, though the scheduling didn't pan out. Among the roundtable invitees were Ella Jones and Wesley Bell, two black Ferguson residents elected to city council in the wake of the Brown shooting; Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R-Mo.), the leading Republican candidate for governor, joined both the roundtable and the tour.

"At lunch, we were discussing some of the young people who protested in this community," said Kinder, who has endorsed Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) for president. "Dr. Carson generously and graciously said that he could have been among them. From his humble beginnings on the mean streets and tough neighborhoods of Detroit, growing up in a single parent household, he could have ended up where Michael Brown ended up."

Carson, the only black presidential candidate in either party, has alternated between praise and criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a 2014 interview, he linked the decline of families and communities to "the women's lib movement," and just this month he wrote in USA Today that "the notion that some lives might matter less than others is meant to enrage," which might be "distracting." Yet in the same column -- distributed at his post-Ferguson press conference -- Carson wrote that "the protesters are right that racial policing issues exist."

The most prominent Black Lives Matter activists did not make it to the Hilton Garden Inn. Carson said he was open to meeting them, though his "beef" with the movement was that it did not seem adequately concerned with lives "that are eradicated by abortions." Some Black Lives Matter activists wanted the Department of Justice to bring a federal monitor to Ferguson, and Carson said locals had told him "was probably more hurtful than helpful to have DOJ involvement."

Apart from that, Carson said that the activists's concerns were well-founded. "It is very important that police are taught to be respectful of everyone," said Carson. "One lady was talking about the fact that she woke up, her son woke up, and said: 'There are police out there all over the place! There are armored vehicles out there!' She went outside, a policeman was walking on the sidewalk, and she asked him: 'What's going on?' He said, 'nothing.' That's not respectful. We need to make sure that respect is offered in both directions."

Asked what programs or reforms he might favor for Ferguson, Carson shifted the conversation to local actors and to individual acts of education, charity, and outreach. He did not take a firm position on whether the many municipal courts of the St. Louis area should be consolidated, or whether the many courts were unfairly filling city coffers with tickets on black people -- something suggested after the Department of Justice and media outlets started looking into the system.

"Does that need to be studied? Of course it does," said Carson. "When we talk about liberty and justice for all, that's exactly what it means. We don't treat anybody specially, we don't persecute anybody specially. When we find evidence of that happening, we use our intellect and our goodwill to remedy the situation. Let's do it on the basis of evidence. That's one of the wonderful things about medicine -- we make decisions based on evidence, not on emotion, not on ideology."

Carson took a similar approach to the debate over mandatory body cameras for police officers, an idea that gained steam after the Michael Brown killing, but has been thwarted in some states by aggressive lobbying from law enforcement unions.

"I'm not really favor of a lot more federal programs, to be honest with you," Carson said. "I certainly would not have a problem with block-granting to states funding for body cameras and things of that nature... for anything that I block-granted to the states, I would tell them that if they are able to accomplish whatever they want to do with 80 percent of that, they can do whatever they want with the rest."

Carson's observations on the Ferguson visit lasted for 29 minutes. The only off-topic question -- about becoming the latest Republican recipient of Donald Trump's insults -- got a quick dismissal, with a complaint about "the media" making a controversy out of nothing. At one point, as his wife Candy watched from the front row, Carson's eyes grew damp as he talked about the conversations he'd had.

"One of the things that touched me a lot was listening to someone who had lost her business during the riots," said Carson. "She’s a mother of three sons. She was talking about how every day, when her sons went out, she worried about would happen to them, and I started thinking about what my mother must have gone through. She had to work two or three jobs at a time. She would leave the house at 5 in the morning -- wouldn't get back until midnight. And we were on our own. She must have been so worried about what would happen to us."

Mayor Knowles, who had spent an uncomfortable year in the spotlight, said that visits by Carson and his rivals could do more then continue the conversation about black lives. They could help change the city's image.

"To go into a coffee shop and see residents of all different races interacting with each other really is a stark contrast from what the national media has presented," said Knowles, who recently thwarted a recall campaign. "We've got I Heart Ferguson shirts for everybody. We can find a size for anyone who comes, any side of the aisle."