Responding to riots in Baltimore, President Obama said Tuesday that there’s “no excuse” for looting and arson, but also said the unrest stems from decades-long neglect of urban communities in the U.S.
“We as a country have to do some soul-searching,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference at the White House. “This is not new. It’s been going on for decades. We can’t just leave this to the police.”
He said “if our society really wanted to solve the problem,” the public would pay attention to issues such as early childhood education and criminal justice reform regularly, not just when people riot.
“If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could,” the president said. “It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant, 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 or has his spine snapped. We’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they’re important, and they shouldn’t be living in poverty and violence.”
The president did criticize the people who looted stores and committed arson in Baltimore Monday night after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a black man who died after being in police custody.
“There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday,” Mr. Obama said. “It is counterproductive. When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing. And when they burn down a building, they’re committing arson.”
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The president, in a joint appearance with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, also said many police departments across the U.S. don’t appear to have changed their behavior since the shooting death last August of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Since Ferguson … we have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions,” Mr. Obama said. “It comes up it seems like once a week now, or once every couple of weeks. This has been a slow-rolling crisis, this has been going on for a long time. This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.”
Asked by a reporter if his administration is doing enough to repair relations between police departments and minority communities, Mr. Obama replied, “I can’t federalize every police force in the country and force them to retrain.”
The president said the rioters “distracted” from peaceful protests led by clergy and community leaders, and blamed the media for focusing on the destruction by “a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place.”
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “The overwhelming majority of the community in Baltimore, I think, have handled this appropriately, expressing real concern and outrage over the possibility that our laws were not applied evenly in the case of Mr. Gray and that accountability needs to exist. I think we have to give them credit.”