WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama again condemned the Baltimore riots in an interview that aired Wednesday morning, but focused on the need to broaden the conversation and address the root causes of tensions between police and urban, predominantly African-American communities.
Obama tied neglected and impoverished communities as both the source of frustrations that drew rioters into the streets and “part of the reason police have a tough job,” urging a broader focus to address those root causes in an interview on “The Steve Harvey Morning Show.”
“If you send police officers into those situations where the drug trade is the primary economy and you say to them basically your job is to contain that and arrest kids and put them in jail when those police officers know [it’s not going to fix things], then it’s not surprising you end up with a situation of enormous tension between those communities and those police officers,” he said.
Obama urged the need to go beyond new trainings for police officers and also “build a political movement” around policies to help those communities — from early childhood education to infrastructure building to drug sentencing reform.
But the President also homed in on police accountability and the need for police departments to build up trust in the communities they operate, which he said would not only make them more successful but keep police officers safer.
“Like any other profession there are times when folks aren’t doing what they should be doing. Rather than close ranks we have to have accountability and transparency,” Obama said.
Throughout the interview, as he has in each public address on the topic of race and policing, Obama walked a fine line between empathizing with protesters and condemning bad policing, but also respecting the tough task of law enforcement.
Obama said his “heart goes out” to officers injured in the riots and he also applauded police officers in Baltimore this week whom he said “showed appropriate restraint.”
And as he did during a press conference Tuesday, Obama again sharply condemned the riots that broke out in Baltimore this week as “counterproductive,” inexcusable and disrespectful to Freddie Gray’s family, in a radio interview that aired Wednesday morning.
“The kind of violence, looting, destruction that we saw from a handful of individuals in Baltimore, there’s no excuse for that,” Obama said in the Wednesday interview. “That’s not a statement, that’s not politics, that’s not activism, it’s just criminal behavior.”
Obama said those actions shifted the focus away from the injustice surrounding Gray’s death and other deaths of black men at the hands of police in New York and Ferguson, each of which he said are “not just an isolated incident.”
Protests and later riots broke out in Baltimore following the death of Gray, who suffered a spinal cord injury and was rendered unconscious while in police custody.
Obama added that he may go to Baltimore “once things clear up,” but will stay away from the city for now to keep law enforcement focused on the task at hand.
In condemning the riots, Obama focused on the negative impact that destruction — including that of a CVS — has on that community.
“It’s counterproductive…it hurts communities that are already suffering,” Obama said.
“These are our communities that get torn up so whoever was working at that CVS, they right now are wondering are they going to get a paycheck. That family that needs their prescription filled they’re now wondering how far do I have to drive and how much do I have to spend to get a prescription for grandma.”
Obama also stressed the need to build a broad coalition to address issues with policing across the country and the state of poor, urban communities — and the need to stay focused on that mission.
He stressed that even “the best intentioned mayor or governor or police commissioner can’t do it alone” and said parents, clergy, business leaders and others also need to be a part of the solution. “Real progress,” he said, can only happen together.
“People have a tendency when the fires are put out, once the cars aren’t being tipped over…then folks want to go back and focus on whatever reality TV thing is going on,” Obama said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we don’t brush this aside after the crisis has passed.”
By Jeremy Diamond