Truth Teller

The Most Honest 15 Minutes Of Obama’s Presidency

Addressing Baltimore’s systemic poverty and lack of opportunity, Obama suddenly was the president we’ve needed all along.

04.28.15 10:55 PM ET

Suddenly, President Obama did not need an anger translator.

Suddenly, he seemed exactly himself, power speaking truth.

The best public 15 minutes of his presidency came on Tuesday in response to a question about Baltimore at a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“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 and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we’re not gonna solve this problem,” he said as he stood in the sunshine in the Rose Garden 43 miles from the epicenter of the previous night’s riot.

He went on, “And we’ll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts 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.”

He made clear that there is no excuse for such violence.

A youth throws a rock at police on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.  Violent street clashes erupted in Baltimore after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over US police tactics.  Police said at least seven officers were injured -- one of them was unresponsive -- as youths hurled bricks and bottles and destroyed at least one police vehicle in the vicinity of the shopping mall not far from the church where the funeral took place.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

A youth throws a rock at police on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, MD. Violent street clashes erupted after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over U.S. police tactics.

“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. “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.”

But he made equally clear that the police cannot be the long-term solution any more than they were the immediate cause of the unrest.

“We can’t just leave this to the police,” he said. “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.”

Arrest sheets will indicate how many of the rioters came from the high schools that let out just before the trouble erupted in Baltimore. The demographics of those schools are already well documented.

The most prestigious of them—as well as the one adjacent to the Mondawmin Mall, where the riot started—is Frederick Douglass High School. Its alumni included not just Cab Calloway and the father of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, but also Thurgood Marshall, class of 1925.

Marshall went on to successfully argue Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court, the 1954 case that led to the desegregation of the nation’s public schools. Marshall then became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

But 60 years after official end of segregation, the 789 students at Marshall’s alma mater are 99 percent minority, only a couple of whites more than when there were none at all.

What has changed is that most of the middle-class black families that once filled the surrounding neighborhood have moved away. They were largely replaced by the poor—working and non-working.

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Of the present students at Frederick Douglass, 83 percent are listed in a U.S. News and World Report index as economically disadvantaged. Only 53 percent are listed as proficient in English, just 44 percent proficient in algebra.

The worst kind of example was set by former principal Antonio Hurt, who was convicted last year of stealing nearly $2 million from a program intended to feed disadvantaged children. He had diverted the funds to his pocket, buying bling and fancy automobiles.

Police carry an injured officer from the streets near Mondawmin Mall on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Violent street clashes erupted in Baltimore after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over US police tactics.  Police said at least seven officers were injured -- one of them was unresponsive -- as youths hurled bricks and bottles and destroyed at least one police vehicle in the vicinity of the shopping mall not far from the church where the funeral took place.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

The present principal, Iona Spikes, is a decided improvement. She was unavailable for comment yesterday, not answering calls placed at her home and office. All of the city’s schools were closed yesterday.

That included the other high schools in the vicinity of the Mondawmin Mall.

Carver Vocational-Technical High is 100 percent minority, with 79 percent of the students economically disadvantaged.

Coppin Academy is 100 percent minority, with 77 percent economically disadvantaged,

Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship is 98 percent minority, with 97 percent economically disadvantaged.

Baltimore Civitas is 99 percent minority, with 77 percent economically disadvantaged.

Connexions Community Leadership Academy is 98 percent minority, with 76 percent economically disadvantaged.

Such numbers and the social ills that accompany them are well known to our president. But he has seldom addressed them with the clarity and forthrightness he demonstrated in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.

“This is not new,” Obama said. “It’s been going on for decades. And 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, who can’t do right by their kids.”

He cited the equation of what he termed a “slow-rolling crisis” that nobody should report as new.

“It’s more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead, than that they go to college. In communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men. Communities where there’s no investment and manufacturing’s been stripped away. And drugs have flooded the community, and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks.”

He charged on.

“If we are serious about solving this problem, then we’re going to not only have to help the police, we’re going to think about what can we do, the rest of us, to make sure that we’re providing early education to these kids, to make sure that we’re reforming our criminal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons, so that we’re not rendering men in these communities unemployable because of a felony record for a non-violent drug offense; that we’re making investments so that they can get the training they need to find jobs.”

He summoned some of his old audacity, the hope that had carried him to the White House. He sounded as if he belonged there.

“But 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, 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 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.”

Obama apologized to Abe for having spoken so long in response to a lone query about Baltimore.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, but this is a pretty important issue for us,” Obama said, adding at the end, “That was a really long answer, but I felt pretty strongly about it.”

Too bad he did not say more sooner.