On Saturday evening, as the first stirrings of violence shot through Baltimore , Washington's celebrity reporters and politicos were taking their seats at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, settling in for a long night of free booze, dad jokes, and "accidental" run-ins with that tall guy from HBO's Veep.
As Jon Stewart and plenty of Twitter activists quickly pointed out, the optics weren't great: A city as devolving into mayhem, while just up I-95, reporters in eveningwear fawned over supermodels and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. "Your hair is so white now it can talk back to the police," Saturday Night Lives's Cecily Strong, the evening's comic host, joked to Obama.
Self-righteous tweets aside, though, the stark juxtaposition highlighted ongoing silence in elite Washington about police brutality and the wave of protests sparked by it across the country. Despite almost daily reports of cops losing their cool against unarmed civilians—primarily men of color—national politicians have mostly avoided the issue, shying away from a larger debate about policing reform.
Of course, when Baltimore erupted on Monday after the funeral of Freddie Gray, who died of a mysterious spinal cord injury sustained while in police custody, the subject of law enforcement excesses became a lot harder to ignore. By now, most of the 2016 presidential candidates have said something about the riots. Hillary Clinton gave a whole speech on race and criminal justice reform Wednesday, calling for police body cams and sentencing reforms. Her long-shot Democratic opponent Martin O'Malley, a former governor of Maryland who was once mayor of Baltimore, rushed home from a trip abroad to hand out homegrown kale to protestors, a move that mostly just reminded people that he's a partial inspiration for Mayor Carcetti on The Wire. (David Simon, the show's creator, credits O'Malley with driving "the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore.")
Reactions have been a little more muted on the Republican side. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tweeted out "prayers for restoration of peace in Baltimore." Chris Christie also tweeted his response calling for a "peaceful resolution" to the protests, and sent 150 New Jersey state troopers to help patrol Baltimore. In an op-ed for TIME, Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who spent most of his career at Johns Hopkins, expressed dismay at the violence.
"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," Carson wrote. "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."
Related: Radley Balko on the militarization of America's police.
But apart from urging better community outreach, the candidates have mostly stayed away from the general problem of police brutality—the driving force behind the Baltimore protests and the broader #BlackLivesMatter movement. Instead, the political discussion around the protests has, so far at least, been a sort of catchall for social and economic justice issues like income inequality, lack of government investment in minority communities, and failing schools.
"There are so many things to talk about not in the immediate aftermath, but over time," Kentucky US Senator Rand Paul said in an interview with Laura Ingraham Tuesday. "The breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society. This isn't just a racial thing. It goes across racial boundaries. But we do have problems in our country, and you see that we're close to the tipping point–closer to the tipping point on many things."
And politicians' attention has often turned away from Gray's still-unexplained death to the rioting in Baltimore, with candidates quick to voice their support for law enforcement. "When you have a situation where churches are burned and when nursing homes that are under construction to deal with frail elders are burned to the ground, there has to be a commitment to the rule of law and to law enforcement," Jeb Bush told reporters Tuesday.
Texas US Senator Ted Cruz was, true to form, a little more extreme, saying Wednesday that President Obama has "exacerbated racial misunderstandings" and inflamed tensions. "The vilification of law enforcement has been fundamentally wrong and it has hurt the minority community," Cruz added.
The initial reactions underscore the political challenge candidates face as they attempt to validate protests against police brutality—and acknowledge racial biases in the criminal justice system—without appearing to declare open season on cops. "Policing reform is for some reason more racially tinged than reducing mass incarceration—it's a more racially polarizing issue," said Inimai Chettiar, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. "A lot of Americans are very pro-police. I think that perhaps people still believe the myth that you have to arrest everyone, that you have to imprison everyone."
The good news, Chettiar added, is that after decades of escalating tough-on-crime politics, there is a growing consensus that the system is broken. A new book published this week by the Brennan Center contains essays from many of the major 2016 presidential candidates on how to reform the criminal justice system, with proposed solutions ranging from reducing mandatory minimum sentencing to expanding drug treatment for nonviolent offenders.
Still, the issue of police violence and accountability goes mostly unaddressed. "The federal government tries to stay away from local law enforcement response unless it's absolutely necessary," said Maria Haberfeld, a political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "There's a historical tendency to deal with policing issues at the local level, which is why we have 18,000 police departments, and the most decentralized law enforcement on earth."
"In general, police response to these events tends to be sort of a band-aid—there's minimal training, minimal reorganization, and that's primarily due to a lack of conceptual framework," Haberfeld added. "If something is going to change in a transformational way, the federal government is going to have to provide some sort of guidance for organization, recruitment, and training."
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