Obama: Baltimore Violence Part of "Slow-Rolling Crisis"

Obama: Baltimore Violence Part of "Slow-Rolling Crisis"
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As the city of Baltimore hunkered down during a second day of unrest Tuesday, President Obama defended the city’s police as well as state and local officials and said individuals who torched cars and buildings and looted businesses overnight “need to be treated as criminals.”

But one day after his spokesman called Baltimore’s problems a “local issue” linked to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was severed while in police custody, the president said the country should “do some soul searching” because problems of policing and justice, simmering with racial tensions, have been “going on for decades” in Baltimore and too many other American communities.

“This is not new,” Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden, standing next to visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.”

While the Maryland rioters, many of them African-American and minors, did not organize as demonstrators trying to transmit a social message, the president noted that their destruction and lawlessness in the wake of Gray’s funeral nevertheless spoke volumes.

Obama said there is no excuse for criminal acts, but poverty, splintered families, substance abuse, records of incarceration and lack of education can be an explosive combination in communities. 

“It's more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead than that they go to college; in communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men -- communities where there's no investment and manufacturing's been stripped away. And drugs have flooded the community, and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks,” he added.

“So I think it's pretty understandable why the leaders of civil rights organizations, but more importantly moms and dads across the country, might start saying this is a crisis. What I'd say is this has been a slow-rolling crisis,” Obama said.

Overnight, some observers said the president should have spoken publicly to try to quiet tensions as Tuesday’s destruction began. The pace of civil unrest and organized protests after the deaths of black men by police has dominated national headlines and Justice Department investigations, month after month.

But Obama defended the limits of the federal role in Baltimore, and said DOJ, now led by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, is actively probing the circumstances of Gray’s death. He condemned Tuesday’s mayhem and commended the majority of Baltimore police, whose injuries underscored “that that’s a tough job, and we have to keep that in mind.”

Obama wondered aloud where the TV news cameras were when law-abiding demonstrators this week sought to be heard before Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake imposed a curfew and Gov. Larry Hogan activated the National Guard.

Baltimore is home to nearly 621,000 people, 63 percent of whom are black.

“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,” the president told members of the American and Japanese press delegations.

Peaceful protesters, he said, “didn't get that 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.”

The national discussion, involving police aggression and training, criminal justice, racial bias and community safety, has been the subject of a White House task force, Obama noted. He hailed the Justice Department’s financial backing for police body cameras, and federal grants for community policing, training and data collection.

“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,” the president said.

As Obama spoke, Baltimore public schools remained closed. Some businesses were boarded up, assessed losses and cleaned up glass and debris. The Baltimore Orioles canceled their scheduled game for the second straight night, and some tourist attractions were closed. And 2,000 Maryland National Guard forces prepared for a Tuesday night curfew. Fifteen Baltimore law enforcement officers were hospitalized after Monday’s violence. More than 200 people were arrested. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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