'Criminals' Taking Advantage Of Situation In Baltimore, Obama Says

President Obama is condemning the unrest in Baltimore, saying a handful of "criminals" are taking advantage of the situation following the April 19 death of Freddie Gray. (AP)
President Obama is condemning the unrest in Baltimore, saying a handful of "criminals" are taking advantage of the situation following the April 19 death of Freddie Gray. (AP)

President Obama is condemning the unrest in Baltimore, saying that a handful of "criminals" are taking advantage of the situation following the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a serious spine injury while in police custody.

As we have been reporting, hundreds of National Guard troops have been positioned across parts of the city a day after riots left at least 15 police officers wounded and more than a dozen buildings destroyed, damaged or looted. The violence, as NPR's Jackie Northam noted, began after Gray's funeral. His death on April 19 at a hospital led to several days of mostly peaceful protests.

Speaking today alongside visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama said "there's no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday."

"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. "When they burn down a building, they're committing arson. And they're destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities that rob jobs and opportunity from people in that area."

Obama said he'd spoken to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday about the steps they have taken to try stop what the president called "senseless violence and destruction."

"That is not a protest, that is not a statement, it's people — a handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals," he said.

He said the violence distracted from the peaceful protests that followed Gray's death, and noted the often-violent interactions between police and African-Americans and the poor were part of a "slow-rolling crisis."

"This has been going on for a long time," he said. "This is not new. And we shouldn't pretend that it's new. The good news is that perhaps there's some newfound awareness because of social media and video cameras and so forth that there are ... problems and challenges when it comes to how policing and our laws are applied in certain communities, and we have to pay attention to it and respond."

He said a White House task force comprising law enforcement and community activists, created in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., "wouldn't solve every problem, but would make a concrete difference in rebuilding trust and making sure that the overwhelming majority of effective, honest and fair law enforcement officers .. [are] able to do their job better because it will weed out or retrain or put a stop to those handful who may be not doing what they're supposed to be doing."

Obama said that police department across the country need to acknowledge that just as there are some corrupt politicians and wrongdoers on Wall Street, "there are some police who aren't doing the right thing." The president added that some communities, police department and the entire country "have to do some soul searching."

"[I]f we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. 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 short 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."

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