President Obama forcefully condemned the riots in Baltimore as “counterproductive” on Tuesday, labeling the rioters as “criminals and thugs” and striking a new tone of frustration with the cycle of allegations of deadly police abuse followed by violent protests.
Such an emotional response has been mostly absent from Obama’s major public comments after the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., last year and the wave of demonstrations around the country.
Obama has long sought to tamp down what the White House sees as unrealistic expectations that, as the first black president in a nation with a history of racial strife, he is singularly powerful enough to curb police abuse or solve the problems plaguing minority communities.
On Tuesday, he spoke vigorously and at length about the need for communities as a whole to wipe out poverty and other underlying issues that have sparked unrest and riots. Obama cited shortcomings in early education, the criminal justice system and job training.
“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.
A day earlier, looting and fires broke out in Baltimore after the funeral of a black man, Freddie Gray, who was mortally injured while in police custody. Hundreds were arrested, and the National Guard was called in to help calm the city.
Speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden, Obama predicted that the same sequence would repeat itself until the country addressed the root causes.
“We'll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets,” the president said. “And everybody will feign concern until it goes away and then we go about our business as usual.”
His call for a solution that comes from a cross-section of classes and races underscored Obama’s insistence that he is limited in what he can do to solve entrenched social problems.
To be sure, Obama could have taken further action in his effort to alleviate social woes — for example, further limiting the Pentagon programs transferring surplus equipment to local law enforcement authorities that have become emblematic of the militarization of police. But in the absence of congressional interest in the sweeping economic and social programs Obama seeks, and a need to strike a balance between hearing the concerns of minority communities without alienating law enforcement, the White House sees itself as forced to push small-scale initiatives.
“Some of this change takes time, but I think the frustration that you heard today was about the lack of support [on Capitol Hill] for what we know works,” said Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett.
On Tuesday, the president seized on a reporter’s question about Baltimore as an opening for a lengthy meditation on the disenfranchisement of urban America.
He offered a survey of the wide range of social ills that he said exacerbated the problem — including substance abuse, mass incarceration, absentee fathers and the failure of public schools.
Change will come only when “we're paying attention all the time,” Obama said, lamenting that sustained and widespread political mobilization was absent in the U.S.
It isn’t the first time Obama has placed the plight of young black men in the context of social problems. Speaking about the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013, Obama observed that the bloodshed in poor black neighborhoods is “born out of a very violent past in this country.”
“The poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history,” he said at the time.
The more history repeats itself, though, the more maddening it becomes for the White House.
“This is the frustration of a leader who is doing the hard work of racial reconciliation every day in the policies he’s trying to advance,” said Joshua DuBois, who worked on those issues for years as head of Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “And he sees that this is an issue that some folks only tune into when there’s a problem.”
Obama’s remarks were a long time coming, said Julian Bond, the former chairman of the NAACP who also helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was instrumental in organizing the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“We try again and again and again,” Bond said. “It’s hard to do it in a formal way, to say to black and white people, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about these things that seem almost impossible.’ For some reason, we can’t seem to do it.”
After the shooting death in Ferguson of an unarmed black man by a white police officer last August, Obama appointed a task force to try to address the tensions between police and the neighborhoods they serve. The panel released a report in March recommending more data collection and independent investigations into deaths and injuries involving encounters with police.
Chiefly, the report raised a troubling description of the typical interactions between police and impoverished blacks.
Not long ago, Obama preached against cynicism in an address at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of the bloody demonstrations there that were a catalyst for passage of the Voting Rights Act.
He brought up the results of the Justice Department’s Ferguson investigation and its “sadly familiar” narrative about how police treat black people.
But he said he rejected the notion that nothing had changed.
“What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom,” he said.
Yet on Tuesday, he was focused almost entirely on the endemic nature of institutionalized racism.
The country, said Obama, has to do some “soul-searching.”
“This has been going on for a long time,” Obama said. “This is not new. And we shouldn't pretend that it's new.”