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'No Excuse' For Violence In Baltimore, Obama Says


Baltimore's mayor and police faced harsh public criticism today after a night of looting and rioting. The violence began Monday just hours after the funeral of Freddie Gray. He died of a severe spinal injury a week after being arrested by police. It's still unclear precisely how he was injured. At a news conference today, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts acknowledged concerns that police did not do enough before last night's violence began.


ANTHONY BATTS: People may ask, why didn't you move faster? Because there are 14, 15 and 16-year-old kids out there. Do you want people using force on 14, 15, 16-year-old kids that are out there?

CORNISH: We'll have a report of the issue of crowd control in a moment. But first, President Obama weighed in on the unrest in Baltimore. That happened in the Rose Garden today as he stood next to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. NPR's Tamara Keith was there.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When the question came, President Obama was ready with a six-point answer that started with concern for Freddie Gray's family and the police officers injured in the unrest in Baltimore. Obama had strong words for the people responsible, who he described as criminals and thugs.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They're not protesting. They're not making a statement. They're stealing. When they burn down a building, they're committing arson. And they're destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities.

KEITH: He said it was counterproductive, and then the president kept going. For 14 minutes, he spoke, at one point even apologizing to the Japanese prime minister.


OBAMA: I'm sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, but this is a pretty important issue for us.

KEITH: Obama has often struggled to hit the right tone on matters of race with many wanting him to say more and others accusing him of reverse racism. It isn't easy, and at times, he's seemed to try to avoid the conversation, but not today - not with fires still smoldering 40 miles away in Baltimore. Obama talked directly about policing that has resulted in the deaths of black men who have become household names - Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and now Freddie Gray.


OBAMA: 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.

KEITH: He described it as a rolling crisis and then went in deeper.


OBAMA: We can't just leave this to the police. I think there are police departments that have to do some soul-searching. I think there are some communities that have to do some soul-searching, but I think we as a country have to do some soul-searching.

KEITH: He said there was no excuse for the destructive behavior in Baltimore, but the circumstances shouldn't be ignored. He talked about children born into poverty in neighborhoods where they're more likely to die or go to jail than to college, where fathers are absent, where drugs dominate the local economy. Obama argued society has to make a choice to lift those communities up, otherwise...


OBAMA: We're not going to solve this problem, and we'll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets.

KEITH: To solve it, he says everyone would have to make an effort and not just pay attention to these communities when a CVS is burning or a young man gets shot. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.