The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The White House views the police killings of unarmed black men as a local issue. They aren’t.

Stevonte Clark, whose brother Stephon Clark was fatally shot by police on March 18, joined a crowd of protesters interrupting the Sacramento City Hall meeting. (Video: Reuters)
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On the West Coast, citizens filled a Sacramento City Hall meeting Tuesday protesting lawmakers' response — or lack of it — to the fatal killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by police earlier this month. Police say they believed he had a gun, but only a cellphone was found near his body.

On the same day, officials in the Deep South declined to charge two Baton Rouge police officers in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling nearly two years ago. The 2016 shooting came the day after a Midwesterner — Philando Castile — was killed by a Minnesota police officer after the St. Paul man told the law enforcement officer that he legally had a gun in the car.

These fatal killings of black men by police have happened all across the country, leading to frequent protests, interruption of sporting events and trending hashtags. They are mentioned by politicians hoping to convince voters that they are the best people to lead communities.

But on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called them a “local issue.”

Veteran political journalist April Ryan asked Sanders about President Trump's response to the latest news involving Sterling and Clark.

“Certainly, a terrible incident. This is something that is a local matter. And that's something that we feel should be left up to the local authorities at this point in time,” Sanders replied.

Then Ryan asked Sanders about the lingering case of Eric Garner, the New York man who cried out “I can't breathe” in 2014 while in a chokehold administered by New York City police despite the department prohibiting the practice. She said Garner's mother is still looking for an indictment or some reaction from police and wanted to know if Trump had any updates on the status.

“I'm not aware of any specific action. Once again, these will be local matters that should be left up to the local authorities,” Sanders said.

Sanders moved on. But Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, took to social media to address the issue that many Americans have been talking about constantly for much of this week.

“Fact: tension with the black community and police have been an issue since blacks were enslaved in this country. It was once whispered about but now we see fact with video footage. It is a national conversation,” she wrote.

When unarmed black Americans are dying at the hands of police in California, Minnesota, Louisiana and New York, it's not a local issue. It's a national issue.

Even a third of police officers told the Pew Research Center survey that the killings of black men are symbolic of a broader issue.

And fatal police shootings aren't isolated incidents that are no longer happening. The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery wrote earlier this month a story with the headline “Police are still killing black people. Why isn’t it news anymore?” He wrote: “The first of several reasons policing reform has lost our national attention is obvious: Trump. The election of a reality television host under a cloud of Russian interference — whose White House is plagued by scandals, constant turnover, policy reversals, leaks and staff infighting — is deservedly the drama at center stage. Cable news stations, the political press corps and social media networks have covered Trump above all else. As a result, they no longer play the same role in amplifying the cause of police reform.”

Another reason is that the Trump administration simply doesn't care about getting involved on a national level.

Trump spoke about the deaths of Sterling and Castile while he was running for president in 2016 and working to convince black Americans — and others concerned about racism — that he was the best person to deal with issues within the black community.

He even acknowledged in a Fox News interview that he could do something in response to the possibility that police treat black Americans differently.

O'REILLY: Do you believe that there is a problem in American policing whereby blacks are treated differently than whites? Do you believe that?

TRUMP: It could be.

O'REILLY: It's possible.

TRUMP: It could be.

O'REILLY: As president, is there anything you can do about that?

TRUMP: I think it's training. It's training of the police. And by the way, I have to say, I think the police 99.9 percent, I mean, I think the police do an incredible job in this country. And you know, the problem with two instances like this which I think were terrible but they get broadcast on television.

But there is one thing the president is aware of: Who is on the Trump Train and who is not. And black Americans are not, while many police officers are. When asked if police could be racially biased, Trump suggested that perceptions about officers are warped by a biased media.

And they don't show all of the good works that the police does. There are hundreds and hundreds and thousands of cases where the police do phenomenal work. I'm a big fan of the police of this country,” he told O'Reilly.

Major police unions endorsed Trump. No major black organization embraced the president — and his approval ratings with black voters remain low. About one in 10 black American now approves of Trump, according to Gallup. And there are multiple reasons for this — one of them is because Trump, and his staff, repeatedly show that they do not understand the major issues impacting black Americans.

When hip-hop artist Jay-Z talked to CNN host Van Jones about the importance of Trump treating “people like human beings” on issues related to racial discrimination, the president took to Twitter to take credit for low black unemployment rates. While Trump was criticized, his response to the rapper who endorsed Trump's Democratic opponent in the 2016 race was far more than the families of Clark, Sterling and Garner received. And this is something that black voters will remember.

Trump once asked black Americans “what the hell do you have to lose?” by voting for him. The answer seems to be an advocate in the White House willing to address the strained relationship between black Americans and law enforcement.