President Obama on Tuesday delivered a sharp-tongued rebuke of rioters in Baltimore, denouncing the actions of “criminals and thugs” who he said were exploiting the death of Freddie Gray.
“There is no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive,” Obama said. “They’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They are stealing.”
Speaking alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a joint press conference, Obama spoke for 15 minutes about the unrest in Baltimore, where the National Guard was patrolling the streets after a day of violent clashes that resulted in fires, looting, injuries to police officers and more than 200 arrests.
The president said protesters have “legitimate” complaints, but he added the violence had drowned out that message.
“One burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and the thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way have been lost in the discussion,” he said.
The death of Gray has become part of the tense national debate over race and policing that has raged since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last summer.
Gray died of a spinal injury after being arrested. He spent a week in a coma with an injury that the Baltimore Police Department says it cannot explain. Six officers have been suspended in relation to the case.
The uproar over his death had been building up to Monday, when Gray, 25, was laid to rest after a funeral service in Baltimore. Crowds gathered in West Baltimore hurled rocks, bottles and other objects at police officers, and the situation quickly spiraled into violence.
The city calmed during the day Tuesday, with law enforcement out in full force and a citywide curfew set to begin at 10 p.m.
The police-related deaths of black men have become a growing challenge for the administration, forcing Obama to walk a delicate line on the issue.
Civil rights groups are pushing for the White House to launch a sweeping policy response to what they say is widespread police brutality. NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks said in a statement that the deaths demand a “systemic reform of policing in this country.”
Obama said it is “understandable” that civil rights leaders would call issues in policing a national crisis.
“This has been a slow-rolling crisis that has been going on for a long time,” he said. “This is not new, and we should not pretend that it’s new.”
In the aftermath of the Ferguson case, Obama ordered the creation of a special task force to examine race relations and policing. He urged law enforcement agencies to take another look at the panel’s recommendations, arguing steps like the use of body cameras could make a difference.
Still, he challenged police unions to acknowledge that their officers are sometimes in the wrong.
“We have to own up to the fact that there are occasionally going to be problems here,” he said. “There are some police who aren’t doing the right thing.”
Obama praised some “thoughtful police chiefs” who have recognized the problem “instead of closing ranks,” but he said it is ultimately up to local authorities, and not the federal government, to reform law enforcement agencies.
“We can’t federalize every police force in the country and force them to retrain. What I can do is start working with them … so they can begin this process of change themselves,” he said.
Obama said there is more the federal government could do to address the challenges facing minorities and reiterated the push for early childhood education, job training and criminal-justice reform, including reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders that render many black men “unemployable.”
Authorities cannot just “send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems,” Obama said, arguing that issues like poverty, drugs and absent fathers have eroded trust between inner city communities and their governments.
Solving them will require real involvement in those communities, Obama said, and that “we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns.”
Obama’s comments were echoed by Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulVaccine 'resisters' are a real problem Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Journalist Dave Levinthal discusses 'uptick' in congressional stock trade violations MORE (R-Ky.), a presidential candidate who is pushing for the GOP to increase its outreach to minorities.
Paul blamed the situation in Baltimore on a number of factors, including the “breakdown in the family structure, the lack of fathers and the lack of moral code in our society.”
“There are a lot of root, cultural causes for why violence breaks out, but there is no excuse for it,” Paul said Monday on “The Laura Ingraham Show.”
“This isn’t just a racial thing. It goes across racial boundaries, but we do have problems in our country, and we see that we are close to the tipping point.”
Ben Kamisar contributed.
— This story was updated at 8:29 p.m.