Rand Paul to Baltimore Republicans: 'Understand the Anger of People'

The Kentucky senator continues to speak out about criminal justice reform.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses the Baltimore county Republican Party's annual Lincoln/Reagan Dinner at Martin's West June 9, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It was a familiar story, a regular part of his stump speech, but Rand Paul paused before he told it.

"I've been telling this story for about a year and a half, two years now," the Kentucky senator and presidential candidate told Baltimore County Republicans, who had filled a reception hall west of the city. "It makes me sad. I thought about not telling the story again. But I think this young man's memory should help us to try to change things. He died this weekend. He committed suicide. His name was Kalief Browder. He was a 16-year-old teenager from the Bronx. He was arrested, accused of a crime, and sent to Rikers."

As hundreds of Republicans listened—voters, donors, elected officials—Paul retold the Browder story that had become infamous after a profile in the New Yorker. It was more gruesome than the version he usually told, because he was building to something.

"Are we going to let you be raped and murdered and pillaged before you've been convicted?" Paul asked. "He wasn't even convicted! So when I see people angry and upset, I'm not here to excuse violence in the cities, but I see people angry. I see where some of the anger is coming from."

Six weeks earlier, some black neighborhoods of Baltimore had exploded in violence and protest over the killing, while in police custody, of a man named Freddie Gray. The setting for Paul's speech was just a short drive from the scene, but it couldn't have looked further away. The Lincoln and Reagan Dinner that brought them there sprawled across two lush ballrooms that typically hosted weddings. Before Paul spoke, Republicans sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," then recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then listened to a special, twangy patriotic song written by a local conservative.

From the same stage, Paul told Baltimore-area Republicans to consider why Baltimore erupted and why so many black Americans mistrusted the justice system.

"I went to Ferguson," Paul said. "I said, set up voter registration tables, and register everybody that's unhappy to vote. There is a constructive way of doing this. I didn't grow up poor—I grew up middle class, or upper middle class. This is me learning about how other people have to deal with life. And this young man, 16 years old, imagine how his classmates feel about American justice. Imagine how his parents feel. Until we've walked in someone else's shoes, we shouldn't say we can't understand the anger of people."

Paul did not go into great detail about the riots, and did not mention Freddie Gray by name. But he did not repeat his initial reaction to the riots, from a radio interview with Laura Ingraham. He did not joke about zooming past the city on a train, or say anything about the breakdown of families. Instead, he suggested that Democrats were collecting votes from people they'd marginalized with tough-on-crime policies.

"The Democrats have utterly failed our inner cities, and utterly failed the poor," said Paul. "Don't let them tell us it wasn't them. A lot of these policies came from Bill Clinton. In Ferguson, for every 100 black women, there are 60 black men. That's because 40 are incarcerated.  Am I saying they did nothing wrong and it's all racism? No. What I am telling you is that white kids don't get the same justice... the arrests in Baltimore are 15 to one black to white for marijuana arrests."

These were not applause lines, but nor did they fall flat. In conversations with Bloomberg, many of the Republicans in the room shared Paul's reaction to Baltimore, and rejected the idea that more police or harsher laws were the way to prevent future uprisings.

"I don't think more police is the answer," said Delegate Chris West. "I don't think more money is the answer. I think the answer is more jobs, and if we don't have good transportation from that area we need good transportation. I heard a story, this past winter, of a lady who wanted to work at the casino, and there was only one bus a day. That's not right."

A generation ago, fewer Republicans and Republican voters might have said that. In 1968, riots inspired by the murder of Martin Luther King burned sections of the city that never truly came back. In 1970, just 623,335 people lived in Baltimore County, and 906,244 lived in the city. In 1994, the county's population surpassed the city's. Last year, the city claimed just 622,104 residents to Baltimore County's 823,015. Like Michigan's Oakland County, Baltimore County became defined by white flight, and politically vital for anyone who wanted to win statewide. 

Also on Bloomberg Politics: Ferguson's Lopsided Criminal Penalties for African Americans, and What They Mean for Libertarian Reformers

Since this year's riots ended, Baltimore's murder rate has surged. Yet at the Baltimore County dinner, there was little detectable worry about crime spilling over from the city. There was more worry about how the city could be fixed. Christian Miele, a newly elected delegate from northeast Baltimore County, said that he'd entered politics in part because of Paul.

"I never heard a call for more police," he said. "I heard a call for civility. I heard a call for empowering communities from within. My constituents were more frustrated and upset, because a lot of them grew up in the city, and they were watching it implode. Right now I'm working with Democrats in Baltimore City to fashion a jobs bill. You get more people working, and they'll take more interest in their communities."

From the stage, the only mention of the April riots came from Al Mendelsohn, the chair of the Baltimore County Republican Party. Even then, he only briefly credited Republican Governor Larry Hogan for leading during the unrest while Baltimore's (Democratic) mayor seemed to be letting property fall victim to rioters.

Paul didn't go there. He talked about the railroading of Richard Jewell, the man became a suspect in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing investigation, to demonstrate that bad policing could affect anyone.

"I'm not saying it's racism," he said, describing the reasons why black men were so disproportionately arrested and jailed. "Many officials are black, so it's not racism. But something's wrong with the war on drugs that we decide to lock people up for 5, 10, 15 years."

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