Culture

President Obama Has Given A Devastating Impromptu Speech About The Baltimore Riots And Poverty In America

"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; that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a [shop] burns, we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped."

Yesterday, Baltimore erupted in violent riots following the funeral of 25-year-old African American man Freddie Gray who died in police custody. Though it’s known he died of a spinal injury, it’s still unclear how he sustained it. But, with the US in the midst of increasing racial tensions following the similarly high-profile deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott, things escalated quickly.

After stores were looted and buildings were burned, thousands of police including the National Guard tried to contain the violence, a state of emergency was declared and a curfew was enforced for the entire city.

Today, halfway through an unrelated press conference with the Japanese Prime Minister, President Obama addressed the issue following a direct question from a White House reporter. As to be expected, he condemned the riots as “counter-productive” and labelled those participating as “criminal and thugs”.

“There’s no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday,” he said. “When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement, they’re stealing.”

But, instead of leaving it there, he used the opportunity to launch into a standalone speech about race relations, poverty and societal duty which has been heralded by some as “the most honest 15 minutes of Obama’s presidency”.

Key takeaways include the bit (starting nine minutes in) where he clarified that the riots do not represent an entire community:

“The violence that happened yesterday distracted from the fact that you had seen multiple days of peaceful protests that were focussed on entirely legitimate concerns of these communities … They were constructive and they were thoughtful and frankly it didn’t get that much attention. One burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and the thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way have been lost in the discussion.”

“The overwhelming majority of the communities in Baltimore I think have handled this appropriately, expressing real concerns and outrage over the possibility that our laws were not applied evenly in the case of Mr Gray and that accountability has to exist.”

The bit where he acknowledges it as a crisis:

“Since Ferguson and the taskforce that we put together, 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.”

“I think it’s pretty understandable that leaders of civil rights organisations, but more importantly mums and dads across the country, might start saying this is a crisis. What I’d say, is this has been a slow-rolling crisis. This has been going on for a long time. This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.”

The bit where he got real about systemic poverty:

“We can’t just leave this to the police. I think there are some police departments that need to do some soul-searching. I think there are some communities which have to do some soul-searching. But I think we as a country have to do some soul-searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades.

Without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities, what we also know is that if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty, they’ve got parents often because of substance abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves can’t do right by their kids, if it’s more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead that they go to college, in communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to the young men, communities where there’s no investment and manufacturing’s been stripped away and drugs have flooded the communitiy and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks… In those environments, if we think that we’re just gonna send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without as a nation asking what we can do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunities, then we’re not going to solve this problem.

We’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflict 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.”

And the bit where everything is so, so, so incredibly bleak:

“If we really wanted 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 importnat, this is significant. That we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a [shop] burns, we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. 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. That’s how I feel.

“That was a really long answer, but I felt pretty strongly about it.”