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2016 Race Collides With Baltimore Unrest

Clinton spoke at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University Wednesday.
Kevin Hagen
Getty Images
Clinton spoke at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University Wednesday.

With the fires out and much of the glass cleaned up in Baltimore, the "soul searching" as President Obama called it, has begun. For those hoping to become the next president of the United States, weighing in presents both an opportunity and a challenge.

Hillary Clinton told an audience in New York Wednesday, the criminal justice system is "out of balance."

She called for body cameras for every police department in America and the end of mass incarceration of low-level offenders.

"We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America," said Clinton in a keynote speech at the 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University.

"There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes and an estimated 1.5 million black men are quote 'missing' from their families and communities because of incarceration and premature death."

The evening before, one-time Baltimore mayor and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley returned to that city and visited with people near where the rioting had taken place. Jason Horowitz of the New York Times was along for the ride:

"And so Mr. O'Malley, a potential challenger to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, stepped out of a Chevy Suburban and onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

Filling the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues was a drum circle and people lifting signs that read, 'Broken Windows are not worse than Broken Bones.'"

As mayor, O'Malley subscribed to the "broken windows" theory of policing, which was very much in vogue at the time. As Horowitz tells it, O'Malley wasn't universally welcomed to the city he once led, but he also seemed undeterred.

"'Did you see all those boarded-up houses on your way out?' shouted a man who greeted him in front of the Arch Social Club ('Please Pardon Our Dust'), where volunteers made turkey sandwiches, handed out water and watched 'Bonanza.'

'I actually did,' Mr. O'Malley said.

'You plan on doing anything about that?'

'I got elevated to the same rank as you, I'm a citizen now,' Mr. O'Malley said, with a grin that he often wears as a shield.

'You made a lot of promises,' the man shouted.

'And I did the best that I could,' the former mayor said.

'In what community? Not in the black community!'

A few seconds later and a couple yards closer to the intersection, a young man named Chris Dickens read to Mr. O'Malley a list of young black men who he said had been victims of police brutality.

'I've heard of them all,' Mr. O'Malley said. 'I think it's tragic and I think we all need to search for a deeper and better understanding. I'm getting crushed with cameras.'"

His not-yet-official campaign team put out a fact sheet outlining his work on matters of policing and criminal justice reform and proudly linked to the Times article as if to imply O'Malley wasn't afraid to mix it up with real people who might not tell him what he wants to hear.

Another potential presidential candidate, Ben Carson, lived in Baltimore for 30 years. He was a world-renowned neurosurgeon who worked at Johns Hopkins University. He wrote on Facebook that he urged "parents, grandparents and guardians to please take control of your children and do not allow them to be exposed to the dangers of uncontrolled agitators on the streets."

And Tuesday, he penned an op-ed for Time.

"When rioting and looting occurs in instances like this, I cannot help but think how important it is to get police involved early on in the community so that the first encounter a young person has with a police officer is not a hostile encounter. That is the type of thing that will make a huge difference in this country. The police have to acknowledge any shortcomings, and if there is unfairness, we need to look at it and improve upon that. Objectivity is the real answer. In order to get there, we have to be able to sit down at a table and have an intelligent conversation rather than getting to our respective corners and demonizing each other. We need to create relationships. Relationships are key to resolutions of problems."

For Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Libertarian-leaning Republican, the situation in Baltimore presented an opportunity to highlight his bipartisan work on sentencing reform in the Senate. But a call to a conservative talk show host took the topic in a different direction.

"It's depressing. It's sad. It's scary," Paul told Laura Ingraham on her show Tuesday.

He joked that he was on a train that went through Baltimore on Monday evening, saying he was glad it didn't stop.

He then turned to the potential causes.

"The breakdown of the family structure. The lack of fathers," Paul told Ingraham. "The lack of sort of a moral code in our society. And this isn't just a racial thing. It goes across racial boundaries. But we do have problems in our country. And you see this and you see that we are close to the tipping point and closer than many think."

Sen. Ted Cruz on Tuesday called on the government "ensure domestic security."

"Today families are scared," Cruz wrote. "Our government must perform its central functions and purposes: to preserve the peace, protect the people, and serve justice."

An open question remains how long politicians will continue talking about these issues once the conflict recedes in Baltimore and the cable news cameras pack up and go home. President Obama, Tuesday, said more conflicts between police and the people they are supposed to protect, even more riots, would be inevitable without sustained attention and soul searching.

"If 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,'" Obama said. "And that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.