President Barack Obama called for a “soul-searching” national examination of the consequences of endemic poverty in minority communities in the aftermath of rioting in Baltimore.
Obama said the violence Monday in Baltimore, which erupted after the funeral for a black man who was fatally injured while in police custody, and last year in Ferguson, Missouri, was a predictable result of life in places stripped of opportunity, where children grow up in poverty without fathers and are more likely to end up in jail than in college.
Even as Obama denounced the “handful of criminals and thugs” who set fires and looted stores and said there still are too many instances in which young black black men are mistreated by police, he turned a question on the Baltimore riots at a White House press conference into a broad indictment of the nation’s moral priorities.
“If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could -- it would just require everyone saying this is important,” Obama said, “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.”
The response harkened back to the promise of social change that helped propel Obama’s barrier-breaking 2008 candidacy to become the nation’s first black president and his political origins as a community organizer on Chicago’s impoverished South Side.
“That was a really long answer but I felt pretty strongly about it,” he said. He turned to Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who joined him for the press conference on U.S.-Japan relations and trade, saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, but this is a pretty important issue for us.”
Riots erupted Monday following the funeral of Freddie Gray, 25, who died on April 19 after suffering spinal-cord injuries while in police custody.
The Baltimore Police Department said fifteen officers were injured in the violence.
“My thoughts are with the police officers who were injured in last night’s disturbances,” Obama said. “There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday.”
U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, who was sworn in on Monday, dispatched the Justice Department’s top civil rights official and the director of its community policing program to Baltimore. The department’s civil-rights division and the FBI are investigating what she called “the tragic death of Mr. Gray.”
Following the deaths of two black men at the hands of police in separate instances in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, Obama ordered a presidential task force to examine how to improve relations between community and police.
Last month, Obama said his administration would act on the panel’s recommendations, which included a call for greater oversight of police departments and the use of independent prosecutors to investigate deadly use of force by officers. The 11-member group also urged state and local police departments to change how officers view the communities they patrol and collect and publicize demographic information and about who they stop.
As late as Monday, Obama’s spokesman said that the onus is on local law enforcement to confront tensions between police and minority communities.
“Ultimately, this is a problem that the federal government is not going to be able to solve,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
But Obama said Tuesday that the conflict won’t be solved simply by repairing the relationships between police and citizens. The country, he said, can’t send officers “to do the dirty work of containing the problems” that arise in impoverished communities.
Unless society does the work needed to change and lift up those communities, “we’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets.”