President Obama has asked Americans, on more than one occasion, to search their souls on the question of race. But on Tuesday, in the wake of riots in Baltimore, he told them that unless this “soul searching” leads to concrete policy changes and more opportunities in communities of color, civil unrest across the nation will not end.
During a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, the president let his frustration show — saying the rioters “need to be treated as criminals” but that, as a society, Americans have disregarded the dire poverty, unemployment, drugs and crime that have provided combustible material for protests over the excessive use of force by police in cities throughout the United States.
“If we think that we’re just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there, without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities . . . then we’re not going to solve this problem,” he said. “And we’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets. And everybody will feign concern until it goes away and then we go about our business as usual.”
Standing in the sunshine of the Rose Garden — a location often reserved for triumphant announcements or momentous bill-signing ceremonies — Obama deplored the “troubling” frequency of deadly encounters between police and often poor African American citizens. “It seems like, once a week now or once every couple of weeks,” he said.
Obama’s outpouring contrasted with his silence Monday afternoon and evening as violence spread through Baltimore. Earlier that day, press secretary Josh Earnest had called tension between police and communities across the country “fundamentally a local issue” and not a problem the federal government could solve.
On Tuesday, however, the president appeared exasperated that the Washington political class has displayed little appetite for ambitious social programs.
“He is very frustrated, because this problem would be solvable if we all came together and made a determined effort to do so,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said.
In the wake of the 2012 fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a Florida neighborhood watch coordinator, Obama launched the “My Brother’s Keeper” program aimed at bolstering opportunities for young men of color where they live; more than 200 communities across the country have signed onto the initiative. The White House also has brought leaders of colleges and universities to Washington to focus on how to recruit more low-income students to their campuses.
But speaking to reporters Tuesday, the president emphasized that even the renewed push to bring accountability in the area of U.S. law enforcement will do little to change a long-standing cycle that amounts to “a slow-rolling crisis” in many poor communities “that have been stripped away of opportunity.”
Behind the scenes, the White House has been working with state and local officials in Maryland since Wednesday, when it became clear that the April 19 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries he suffered while in police custody had sparked widespread outrage. The administration offered to send Justice Department representatives to Baltimore over the weekend, officials said, but Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) said that wouldn’t be needed.
When Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) spoke to Jarrett on Monday around 4:45 p.m., he did not think he would have to declare a state of emergency. Jarrett asked him to notify the president if he thought that had to happen, officials said, and a couple of hours later he called her again. By 8 p.m., Hogan was on the phone with the president.
For Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was sworn in Monday morning, the protests prompted a flurry of activity before she formally took over as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Lynch, who was briefed on the situation over the weekend, met with Jarrett and White House counsel Neil Eggleston just before her swearing-in to discuss how to respond to the ongoing clashes in Baltimore.
Democratic strategist and civil rights activist Donna Brazile, who has been in touch with top administration officials about the situation in Baltimore, noted that Lynch has had extensive experience dealing with police brutality during her time as a federal prosecutor working on the case of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who was arrested and sodomized with a broomstick at a station house in Brooklyn in 1997.
“This is not baptism by fire,” she said. “This woman has been in the pit before.”
Following the example her predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., set during last year’s protests in Ferguson, Mo., Lynch decided to hold off traveling to Baltimore and instead sent two deputies. The head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Vanita Gupta, and Ronald Davis, who directs its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), visited the city Tuesday.
Obama, who did not want to speak publicly on the matter before Lynch briefed him Monday afternoon, headed to the Rose Garden on Tuesday with just a few key points jotted down.
Speaking extemporaneously, he opened with a law-and-order theme. He condemned the rioters for damaging private property and taking items from local stores. “They’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing,” he said. And he offered a word about the injured members of the Baltimore police force, saying it “underscores that that’s a tough job, and we have to keep that in mind.”
Obama also said that the riots were not only wrong but counterproductive, overshadowing the “constructive” efforts of local clergy and community leaders. And many local leaders shared Obama’s feelings about rioters who defied calls for restraint, even by the Gray family.
“The people I saw on the street ignored the pleas of the Gray family,” said Kurt L. Schmoke, president of the University of Baltimore and former mayor. “Those who participated were opportunists who took advantage of a defensive and reactive posture that they knew our police department had to assume.”
Obama saved much of his 14-minute discourse for policy, saying he wished lawmakers were ready to embrace his proposals on expanding early-childhood education and criminal-justice reform.
“But that kind of political mobilization, I don’t think we’ve seen for some time,” he said. “It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant, and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We’re paying attention all the time, because we consider those kids our kids and we think they’re important and they shouldn’t be living in poverty and violence.”
Other black leaders weighed in on the role of the federal government. “I think that it highlights the need and opportunity to address urban policy,” said activist Jesse L. Jackson, who spoke at Gray’s funeral Monday. “Baltimore would be a great model for the urban policy challenge for our nation.”
Going forward, Brazile said, White House officials plan to do more outreach to mayors in an effort to defuse possible confrontations. Obama also recorded a radio interview about Baltimore on the Steve Harvey Morning Show on Tuesday, which will air Wednesday.
“In the aftermath of these tragedies the community constantly wants to know, ‘What happens?’ ” she said, adding that when they don’t get answers from local leaders, “They start asking for answers from people higher up.”