The White House was noticeably silent while Baltimore plunged into chaos and flames on Monday. This was the latest protest, after the burial of the most recent African-American victim killed by white police. The nation’s first black president, a distant observer of how racial relations in the U.S. continue as unstable as ever, attended a scheduled event Tuesday that put him head-to-head with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — the press demanded an answer.
Obama had one. It was long and consisted of six points. “Are we in the throes of a national crisis [with] a state of emergency [declared in Baltimore and] the National Guard … now on the streets of Baltimore, [which is just a 40-minute drive to the White House]?” was what one reporter asked, pushing the topic of conversation away from the economic games resulting from the geopolitical triangle formed by the USA, China and Japan.
In more than 15 minutes of monologue, Obama performed the political balancing act he has usually performed whenever the topic of race comes up ever since he came to power in 2009. It was the same performance he did last summer, when a white policeman killed a young, unarmed black man in then-unknown Ferguson, Missouri.
The president sent his condolences to Freddie Gray’s family. He recognized he understood that his family would want answers about his death while he was under police custody. Obama showed support for the wounded policemen in the riots and criticized the media for showing a partial history and only streaming images of vandalism, completely ignoring the peaceful protests during the day. He attacked the violent acts being committed and said that their perpetrators were criminals. He finished saying that the crisis was real, but not something new.
“This has been going on for a long time,” said the head of state, who is the son of a black African man and a white Kansas woman. “This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new,” insisted Obama, saying that he understood why religious and community leaders are speaking of crisis. After Ferguson and Michael Brown, there followed Staten Island, New York with Eric Garner. Then, there was Cleveland and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, whom a white policeman shot in the park because he thought he was armed.
This month, there was another police-caused death that put North Charleston, South Carolina on the map. Obama made a veiled reference to what happened with Walter Scott, when he said that the only good news in this painful series of deaths was that “social media” was now helping to propagate the truth.
At this point in his speech, which was a long answer to a short question, and which wasn’t even halfway over, the president said sorry to Japan’s prime minister for monopolizing the press conference they were having together. “This is a pretty important issue for us,” Obama said, embracing the podium and turning to Abe.
These are echoes from the past in the White House, Baltimore and in the USA. Obama, as the president of a country that got rich off of slavery and which, as a nation, has been stained by segregation, is careful and sometimes undecided when it comes to expressing his frustration and exasperation, so as to not be identified with just one side: frustration, because, as he himself declared, “I’m under no illusion that out of this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in [black] urban communities;” exasperation when it comes to the tenebrous bridge between “black children in school and jail,” and even more exasperation when remembering that many of those children are born into homes without a future, with drug-addict mothers and absent fathers.
The past seemed to repeat itself Monday night, bringing back memories of Baltimore in the ’70s, when the Black Liberation Army was in power. The police in the city just north of Washington, D.C. considered that there was a credible threat when the rival gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, formed an alliance to kill white police after Gray’s funeral.
The president said there was no “excuse” for “that kind of senseless violence” manifest in Baltimore and assured that those responsible for the riots would be treated “as criminals.” “That is not a protest. That’s not a statement,” the president declared. “It’s people — a handful of people taking advantage of a situation for their own purposes.” Obama dismissed that those who burned vehicles and community centers and broke into businesses did not fit into Martin Luther King’s category, which he pronounced more than half a century ago, saying that “riot[s] [are] the language of the unheard.”