President Barack Obama called on the nation Tuesday to engage in “soul searching” following riots in Baltimore sparked by what he said was the latest troubling encounter between police and African-American men.
Obama decried as “criminals and thugs” those who looted stores and torched vehicles in the city after the funeral service for an African-American man who died of spinal cord injuries a week after an encounter with police.
But he said the nation – not just police departments – need to address what he said were problems rooted in decades of poverty and lack of opportunity in too many American communities.
“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?’ . . . then we’re not going to solve this problem,” he said.
But Obama, who said it seems like such cases are surfacing every few weeks, appeared resigned and frustrated, saying that without changes in the communities “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.”
Obama’s remarks came at a joint Rose Garden press conference with Japan’s visiting prime minister, and Obama at one point apologized to Shinzo Abe for speaking for nearly 15 minutes on the subject, calling it a “pretty important issue for us.”
Obama, who offered condolences to Freddie Gray’s family and said he expected “full transparency and accountability” from a Department of Justice review of the case, said there was “no excuse” for Monday’s violence, which included injuries to police officers.
“When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement, they’re stealing,” he said.
The nation’s first black president has come under pressure to take a more active role in a spate of police-related incidents. But he said the problem goes beyond the police and requires more education, reforms to the criminal justice system and job training in communities wracked by poverty and drugs.
The remarks were Obama’s most extensive on the encounters that have inflamed communities across the country and prompted Obama in August to appoint a task force to address the distrust between police departments and some communities of color.
Obama this time called for no sweeping programs, saying that if society wanted to solve the problem it could.
“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,” he said. “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.”
He included a dig at Republicans in Congress, saying his agenda addresses some of the issues, but that he’s “under no illusion that out of this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in urban communities.”
Instead, he said, the White House would look to see what it could do with changing schools, job training and efforts to attract new business in some communities.
He and Abe, who was being feted at a state dinner Tuesday evening, talked about Japan’s new security guidelines, which could see the country participating in international peacekeeping efforts.
And they pledged cooperation to make progress on a massive trade bill that many in Obama’s own Democratic Party oppose. Obama insisted the package to open up Asia to trade “will end up being the most progressive trade bill in history,” and he said he’s confident he will get the votes to pass it in Congress.
Abe, who will deliver an address Wednesday to a joint session of Congress, stopped short of offering an apology for Japan’s enslavement of Korean women during World War II, as Korean-American groups have called on him to do.
He told reporters he was “deeply pained to think about the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering,” but he attributed it to human trafficking, not Japan’s imperial forces.
He said Japan has made efforts to provide relief to the women, but Korean-American groups, members of Congress and other activists from victimized countries, including China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Netherlands have been pressing him for a full apology.
At an arrival ceremony earlier on the South Lawn, Obama and Abe touted the alliance and friendship between the countries, with Obama joking that the visit was an opportunity for Americans to thank Japan for “all the things we love from Japanese, like karate and karaoke, manga and anime and, of course, emojis.”
The first ladies of the U.S. and Japan toured an elementary school Tuesday in suburban Virginia with a Japanese immersion program, watching students’ performances of Japanese culture.
“Japan is one of America’s best friends in the world,” Michelle Obama said to the students. “And when you learn about Japanese culture and languages, and you get to know kids from Japan, you’re helping to strengthen that friendship. . . . You guys are the true ambassadors.”
Dian Zhang contributed to this report from Great Falls, Va.