U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday said there’s “no excuse” for Monday night’s violence in the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore and called for those who looted and burned buildings «to be treated as criminals.»
Riots erupted in the city after the funeral for 25-year-old Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died in police custody earlier this month.
Obama said what happened Monday in Baltimore «distracted» from the multiple days of peaceful protests that were focused on what he described as «entirely legitimate concerns» over Gray’s death.
«There’s no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday,» Obama said, making his first public statement about the Baltimore case. «It is counterproductive.»
He added, «It’s a handful of people taking advantage of a situation for their own purposes.»
The president’s comments came after Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vowed Baltimore will not have «another repeat» of Monday night.
«It’s not going to happen tonight,» the governor told reporters Tuesday.
«We’re going to make sure we get Baltimore back on track,» said Hogan, stressing that the main goal is to make sure the city is brought back to peace.
Monday’s violence began as hundreds of high school students marched toward a local mall after classes were dismissed for the day, then spread out across several neighborhoods, overwhelming the police department’s ability to respond as the protests turned violent.
However, Obama acknowledged a «slow-rolling crisis» in community policing, saying there have been too many troubling police interactions with criminal suspects of color.
«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,» the president said at a White House press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
«I think there are police departments that have to do some soul-searching. I think there’s some communities that have to do some soul-searching. I think we as a country have to do some soul-searching,» he added.
«This is not new. It’s been going on for decades,» Obama added, referring to tensions in U.S. communities over police actions.
Obama described problems many communities struggle with – equal opportunity, poverty, education, single parenting, lack of male figures in the household, and drugs. Too many people expect to «send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems,» he said.
Obama gave a six-point response to a pointed question about Baltimore, starting with extending sympathy to Gray’s family, as well as police officers injured in Monday’s violence. He then renounced the rioting as counterproductive and said its perpetrators were criminals and thugs.
He said if the country wanted to solve the problem, it needed not only to invest in police training, but also in early education and criminal justice reform.
National Guard deployed
Earlier Tuesday, National Guard troops deployed across Baltimore as authorities attempted to restore order after Monday’s riots.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, and said Tuesday he is temporarily moving his office from the state capital, Annapolis, to Baltimore.
“We’re not going to have another repeat of what happened last night,” Hogan vowed Tuesday after a visit to a West Baltimore neighborhood where cars were burned and windows smashed. “We’re going to make sure we get Baltimore back on track.”
He said there are “a couple of thousand” National Guardsmen and police officers in Baltimore, with more on the way.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who called the rioting «one of the darkest days the city has ever faced,» has declared a weeklong nighttime curfew.
Public schools in the city of 620,000 people were closed Tuesday, as the city began to clean up after looters ransacked stores, pharmacies and a shopping mall and clashed with police.
Volunteers swept up charred debris in front of a CVS pharmacy as dozens of police officers in riot gear stood by and firefighters worked to damp down the embers.