COLUMBIA, S.C. — At a forum to discuss criminal justice issues Saturday, the only times that Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson was applauded was when he took the stage and when he left the stage.
In between, the crowd of about 150, most of them African Americans, sat in silence as Carson spent most of his time talking about the failure of Great Society programs, the high rate of out-of-wedlock births among black women and what he said was a society that was increasingly secular.
At times, some in the audience cringed, like when Carson seemed to dismiss the notion that there were systemic reasons for the disproportionate deaths of unarmed black people during interactions with law enforcement officers.
"I’m not aware of a lot of cases where a police officer just comes up to somebody like you and says, 'Hey, I don't like you. I’m gonna shoot you,' " Carson said, adding that when someone challenged his thinking, he challenged them to "give me some evidence, and I'm still waiting for the evidence."
"I'll show you the Tamir Rice video," said Jeff Johnson, a television journalist who moderated the day-long forum at Allen University, a historically black college here. His comment, referring to the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was shot to death by police officers while playing with a toy gun, drew applause.
Carson was the only Republican candidate to participate in the event, which was sponsored by the 20/20 Leaders of America, a group of black Republican and Democratic political, business and civic leaders who invited all of the presidential candidates to share their plans for criminal justice reform. Only two others, both contenders for the Democratic nomination, took part in the event — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley. Jeb Bush, who is seeking the Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, were represented by surrogates.
Carson's personal narrative of overcoming a childhood of poverty to become a famous neurosurgeon made him a popular role model among African Americans during much of the 1990s. His comments Saturday are part of the reason he has lost favor among some.
Tina Lawyer, a recent graduate of South Carolina State University, was disappointed in Carson's comments.
"I would expect him to be more able to under how we feel and have more of a plan about making our communities safer and more secure for our African American people," Lawyer said, adding that Carson seemed to suggest that the problem was mostly among young black urban men. "It's not just men, it's women too. Sandra Bland was an educated African American woman."
In response to Johnson's example of the Rice shooting, Carson argued that he was not suggesting that there aren't "some bad policemen ... but you don't condemn the whole group and create policies based on the bad apples."
The main problem, Carson suggested, was that police and residents don't show each other mutual respect and don't have enough positive interactions "so that Johnny's first experience with a policeman is playing kickball, not chasing him down the alley." At another point, he scolded: "For those who don't like police, I just want you to think what your life would be like if they weren't there for 24 hours. It would be pretty awful."
He ended his portion of the discussion by answering a question from an audience member about the issues raised by the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"I believe that we ought to be talking about all black lives, not just a few," Carson said. "The greatest number of black lives are eliminated in abortion clinics and that bothers me, and when I look in our major cities, the number one cause of death for young black men is homicide. That to me is a very serious problem. I would like them to mix those things in and let’s talk about all that rather than just one small segment."
Lexus Gittens, a senior at Allen University, said Carson struck her as a "a successful man, nobody's trying to knock him off for doing what he had to do, but I feel like he's going for the majority, not the little people." She was moved by Sanders, who she said "was not afraid to talk about how he personally feels about these things."
Sanders was the crowd favorite. “The Black Lives Matter movement which has arisen in response to these deaths has done a needed and commendable job in raising public awareness of this issue," he said.
He drew applause when he declared that "criminal justice reform must be the civil rights issue of the 21st century ... and the killing of unarmed African Americans has got to stop." Sanders said that as a former mayor of Burlington, Vt., he can attest that "the vast majority of police officers in this country are honest, working hard and do a good job under very, very difficult circumstances." And, he said, there are hard working people living in cities who "should not have to be afraid of their children being targeted by the police because of the color of their skin."
Sanders recited the names of several African Americans who have died during interactions with law enforcement officers, including Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man who was shot in the back while running away from a police officer after a traffic stop. And he recited statistics that show black people are stopped more often by the police, are incarcerated at a higher rate and received longer prison sentences than white people.
O'Malley also was well received by the crowd. He was last to speak and opened his remarks by saying that there"is no public policy issue probably as painfully intertwined with our legacy of slavery and racism in the United States since its founding than is the issue of criminal justice and law enforcement and public safety."
He told the audience that during his tenure as governor he had enacted some of the reforms now being proposed by some activists and politicians, including closing one of the Maryland's worst prisons and restoring voting rights for ex-offenders. O'Malley was applauded when he said how, after failing twice to convince state lawmakers, "On the third try, under my leadership, Maryland became the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to repeal the death penalty."
O'Malley said he believes the federal government should have a more active role in setting policing standards. "Our federal government should set national standards, especially on the use of lethal force," he said.
Lawyer, who came to the forum with her mother Biner Lawyer-Green, who said she thought that Carson seemed a bit out of his depth on the issue. "I think if he had more experience it would make a difference," she said.
Carson began his remarks talking about Alexis de Tocqueville's studies of the America. He told how his mother refused to go on welfare, instead offering to pick produce on farms, if they agreed to give her some of the fruits and vegetables. He was ten minutes into his remarks before he briefly mentioned strained relations between the African American community and police, which he blamed on "purveyors of division."
When Carson did talk about criminal justice, during the question-and-answer session, his answers were not all that different from those of other Republicans. Although they have weighed in on specific cases, most have not endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement, echoing Carson's position that it is divisive and unfairly critical of police officers. And in some of his remarks Saturday, Carson offered support for some aspects of criminal justice reform that have gained bipartisan favor, including restoring voting rights to ex-offenders and reducing the prison population.
But Lawyer couldn't shake the notion that Carson would be so out of sync with many black people who think there is serious concern about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. That the two white men who spoke after him seemed to get it, she said, made for "an odd moment."