President Barack Obama on Tuesday condemned the “criminals and thugs who tore up” the city of Baltimore on Monday night, after rioting and looting paralyzed the city and overwhelmed local officials.
The sustained outbreak of violence followed the funeral for Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man who died after he was arrested more than two weeks ago. Cars were set on fire, stores were destroyed, and six officers were seriously injured. It was the first time Obama has commented on the turmoil in Baltimore that has followed Gray’s death.
“There’s no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive,” Obama said at a press conference from the White House. “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. And they’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities. That robs jobs and opportunity from people in that area.”
The growing violence in Baltimore, just 40 miles from the White House, represents another challenge for the Obama administration in addressing racial unrest across the country. Since the police killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, the administration has worked to acknowledge deep frustrations in minority communities while also supporting law enforcement.
Obama said he spoke with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was sworn in Monday, said the Justice Department is investigating Gray’s death.
Just hours after she was sworn in, Lynch was at the White House on Monday evening meeting with Obama to discuss the violent protests unfolding in Baltimore. She said she will send Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Ronald Davis, director of Community Oriented Policing Services, to Baltimore “in the coming days” to meet with religious and community leaders.
Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arson investigators are aiding local authorities in investigating 60 fires — 10 structure fires like a CVS and a nursing home construction site, the others vehicles — in Baltimore on Monday night.
The White House sent three representatives to Baltimore on Monday for Gray’s funeral: Broderick Johnson, a native of the city and the chairman of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force; Heather Foster, an adviser in the White House Office of Public Engagement; and Elias Alcantara, the associate director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
Obama also said that “there are some police who aren’t doing the right thing,” pointing to tensions with law enforcement that have boiled in African-American communities for decades and now seem to burst into public view “it seems like once a week now.”
“This is a slow-rolling crisis,” Obama said. “This has been going on for a long time. This is not new and we shouldn’t pretend it’s new.”
He said addressing those issues in communities where manufacturing jobs have fallen away and the illicit drug trade has become a key source of income requires major policy shifts, including more funding for education, criminal justice reforms to help nonviolent offenders gain employment and changes in police tactics, such as attaching small video cameras to each officer.
He said achieving those changes would require “that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns” — a reference to one of the most prominent scenes from Baltimore on Monday night.
Obama criticized the media’s coverage of the riots, saying the violence was a distraction from several days of peaceful protests, which should have received more attention.
“They were constructive and they were thoughtful. And frankly, didn’t that much attention,” he said of the peaceful protests. “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.”
“I think there are police departments that have to do some soul-searching. I think there are some communities that have to do some soul-searching,” Obama said. “But I think we as a country have to do some soul-searching.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid offered strong comments on the Senate floor Tuesday against the rioting.
“So let’s condemn the violence. But let’s not ignore the underlying problem. Let’s not pretend the system is fair. Let’s not pretend everything is okay,” he said. “Let’s not pretend the path from poverty like the one I traveled is still available to everyone out there as long as they work hard.”