President Barack Obama said Tuesday there have been too many troubling police interactions with black citizens across American in what he called “a slow-rolling crisis.” But he said there was no excuse for rioters to engage in senseless violence.
He spoke as National Guard troops responded to rioting in Baltimore.
Obama, the first black American president, said those in that city who stole from businesses and burned buildings and cars should be treated as criminals. “They aren’t protesting, they aren’t making a statement, they’re stealing,” Obama said.
The president spoke at a White House news conference with the Japanese prime minister the day after violence broke out 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of the U.SD. capital after the funeral for Freddie Gray, a black man who died in Baltimore police custody under mysterious circumstances. At least 15 police officers were hurt and nearly 200 people arrested in Monday’s disturbance.
“There’s no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday,” 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.”
Obama said the case should prompt some “soul searching” in America about communities where young men are more likely to end up in jail or dead than completing school. He said solutions should involve early education, criminal justice reform and job training.
Obama said officials should not just pay attention to these communities a store burns “or when “a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped.”
At one point Obama apologized to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for taking nearly 15 minutes of their news conference to discuss it. “I felt pretty strongly about it,” he said.
Obama said rioters distracted from days of peaceful protests focused on legitimate concerns “over the possibility that our laws were not applied evenly in the case of Mr. Gray and that accountability needs to exist.”
“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. It comes up, it seems like, once a week now,” Obama said. He said it’s not new, but there’s new awareness as a result of cameras and social media.
Obama said he can’t force police departments across the country to retrain their officers, but he can work with them and help pay for body cameras to improve accountability.
“In those environments, if we think that we’re just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there, without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we’re not going to solve this problem,” he said. “And 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 then we go about our business as usual.”