Obama on Baltimore: Violent Rioters ‘Need to Be Treated as Criminals’

The president spoke Tuesday about protests and looting in the city following the funeral of a black man who died while in police custody.

National Journal
Priscilla Alvarez and Nora Kelly
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Priscilla Alvarez Nora Kelly
April 28, 2015, 8:56 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama on Tues­day af­ter­noon con­demned the vi­ol­ence and loot­ing in Bal­timore after the fu­ner­al of a 25-year-old black man, who died this month after an en­counter with city po­lice of­ficers.

In a lengthy, six-part an­swer to a re­port­er’s query, Obama said loot­ers are hurt­ing busi­nesses and op­por­tun­it­ies in their own com­munity.

“There’s no ex­cuse for the kind of vi­ol­ence we saw yes­ter­day. It is coun­ter­pro­duct­ive,” Obama said. “When in­di­vidu­als get crow­bars and start pry­ing open doors to loot, they’re not protest­ing. They’re not mak­ing a state­ment. They’re steal­ing. When they burn down a build­ing, they’re com­mit­ting ar­son.”

(RE­LATED: Pho­tos of the Protests in Bal­timore

The pres­id­ent said that peace­ful protests—which had been on­go­ing through much of the past week—”were fo­cused on en­tirely le­git­im­ate con­cerns of these com­munit­ies in Bal­timore.” Loc­al and state law en­force­ment, however, should do what they need to do to quell the storm. “A hand­ful of people [are] tak­ing ad­vant­age of the situ­ation for their own pur­poses, and they need to be treated as crim­in­als,” Obama said.

Obama’s com­ments came dur­ing a press con­fer­ence with Ja­pan­ese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, whose trip to Wash­ing­ton is centered on Ja­pan’s trade re­la­tion­ship with the United States. But their joint ap­pear­ance was over­shad­owed by the tu­mult in Bal­timore.

Ri­ots began in Bal­timore on Monday af­ter­noon just hours after the fu­ner­al of Fred­die Gray, who died April 19 after an en­counter with city po­lice of­ficers. The events of that day are un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion by the Justice De­part­ment, which launched a probe last week.

(RE­LATED: How Lor­etta Lynch’s Justice De­part­ment Is Go­ing to Act in Bal­timore

Obama said Tues­day that clashes between po­lice and cit­izens were a res­ult of a “slow-rolling crisis.”

“This is not new,” he said. “And we shouldn’t pre­tend that it’s new.”

He said cir­cum­stances with­in dis­ad­vant­aged com­munit­ies could be im­proved if the na­tion con­sidered them a pri­or­ity. Some po­lice de­part­ments and com­munit­ies “have to do some soul-search­ing,” he said.

“If we really want to solve the prob­lem, if our so­ci­ety really wanted to solve the prob­lem, we could. It would re­quire every­body say­ing, ‘This is im­port­ant, this is sig­ni­fic­ant,’” Obama said, “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.”

(RE­LATED: Is the Po­lice Bru­tal­ity De­bate Help­ing Re­pub­lic­ans?

Oth­er­wise, the pres­id­ent said, “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 we go about our busi­ness as usu­al.”

Obama cited the work of his Task Force on 21st Cen­tury Poli­cing, which is de­vel­op­ing pro­pos­als for loc­al po­lice to im­prove re­la­tions between of­ficers and ci­vil­ians. He also ref­er­enced fed­er­al grants that will be is­sued to po­lice de­part­ments to try out new train­ing and en­force­ment tech­niques, in­clud­ing the use of body cam­er­as.

Late Monday, newly sworn-in At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Lor­etta Lynch re­leased her de­part­ment’s plan to mit­ig­ate the un­rest. In one of her first acts as at­tor­ney gen­er­al, Lynch briefed Pres­id­ent Obama about the Bal­timore situ­ation as it stood. Obama also spoke with Bal­timore May­or Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake and Mary­land Gov. Larry Hogan, who de­clared a state of emer­gency with­in city lim­its and ac­tiv­ated the Na­tion­al Guard on Monday night.

Nearly 200 guard troops are now on the ground and more are await­ing de­ploy­ment, ac­cord­ing to Hogan’s of­fice. Mary­land state troop­ers and po­lice of­ficers from five Mary­land counties also de­ployed to the city.

Dur­ing a press con­fer­ence Monday night, Rawl­ings-Blake is­sued a city­wide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for a week, be­gin­ning Tues­day. Bal­timore pub­lic schools also were closed for the day.

The first night after the protests es­cal­ated was tense. Ac­cord­ing to stat­ist­ics re­leased Tues­day morn­ing by the may­or’s of­fice, there were nearly 200 ar­rests, 144 vehicle fires, and 15 build­ing fires overnight. Nine­teen po­lice of­ficers were in­jured.

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