In his first comments about the Baltimore riots, President Obama said the country has seen “too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions.”
But he accused Congress of not throwing money at his program proposals to address the “slow-rolling crisis.”
Obama spoke at length and obliquely about the instances of police-related deaths, saying he talked for so long because “I felt pretty strongly about it.” Yet it took a reporter’s question at a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, focusing largely on bilateral relations and trade, to prompt Obama to speak about Monday’s riots.
The president said “obviously our thoughts continue to be with the family of Freddie Gray,” the 25-year-old who died April 19 after suffering a severed spine in police custody.
“Second, my thoughts are with the police officers who were injured in last night’s disturbances. It underscores that that’s a tough job, and we have to keep that in mind. And my hope is that they can heal and get back to work as soon as possible,” Obama added. Fifteen police officers were injured in Monday’s rioting.
He called the rioting “counterproductive — when individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement, they’re stealing.” It’s therefore “entirely appropriate,” he said, for Baltimore officials to “work to stop that kind of senseless violence and destruction.”
“The violence that happened yesterday distracted from the fact that you had seen multiple days of peaceful protests that were focused on entirely legitimate concerns of these communities in Baltimore led by clergy and community leaders, and they were constructive and they were thoughtful. And frankly, didn’t get much attention. And one burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way, I think, have been lost in the discussion,” Obama said.
He referred to the rioters as “a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place.”
Obama said his White House task force had come up with policy proposals for local communities and law enforcement that “wouldn’t solve every problem, but would make a concrete difference in rebuilding trust and making sure that the overwhelming majority of effective, honest and fair law enforcement officers, that they’re able to do their job better because it will weed out or retrain or put a stop to those handful who may be not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
“I can’t federalize every police force in the country and force them to retrain. But what I can do is to start working with them collaboratively so that they can begin this process of change themselves,” he said. “…I think it’s gonna be important for organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police and other police unions and organizations to acknowledge that this is not good for police. They have to own up to the fact that occasionally there are gonna be problems here, just as there are in every other occupation.”
The president stressed that there are some bad cops, just like “there are some bad politicians, who are corrupt, and there are folks in the business community or on Wall Street who don’t do the right thing.”
“…We can’t just leave this to the police. I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades. And without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities, what we also know is that if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty. They’ve got parents, often, because of substance abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves, can’t do right by their kids.”
Obama added that “if we think that we’re just gonna 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, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we’re not gonna solve this problem.”
“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,” he said.
While he’s “under no illusion that out of this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in urban communities,” Obama said he’ll “try to find areas where we can make a difference around school reform and around job training and around some investments in infrastructure in these communities and trying to attract new businesses and… but if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could.”
“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… But that kind of political mobilization, I think we haven’t seen in quite some time. And what I’ve tried to do is to promote those ideas that would make a different, but I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough, because it’s too easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law-and-order issue as opposed to a broader social issue.”