A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has found distinct differences among citizens in the U.S. over the causes of recent urban violence. Moreover, Americans appear to believe that the summer of 2015 will prove to have more disturbances along racial lines. This appears to signal that concerns over violence have spilled over from Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri, to the rest of the country. According to the poll, the vast majority of adults surveyed (96 percent) believe that is likely that racvial disturbances will mar civil society in the coming summer months. However, when polled, black and whites appear to embrace different narratives about the possible causes for recent events.
In Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray – allegedly while in Baltimore police department custody – was followed by violent protests, arson, looting and arrests in April 2015. Likewise, in Ferguson, riots appeared to be blended in with protests over the death of a black male teenager at the hands of a white police officers. In the first case, six Baltimore police officers (3 white, 3 black) are now under indictment. In the other case, the white police officer responsible was cleared of wrongdoing. The WSJ/NBC poll was conducted April 26-30, during the time of Freddie Gray’s funeral.
In the WSJ/NBC poll, 60% of blacks polled said that the disturbances reflected “long-standing frustrations about police mistreatment of African Americans.” Of the black respondents polled, approximately 27% believe the disturbances in Baltimore were caused by people who used protests “as an excuse to engage in looting and violence.”
However, among white respondents, the results appeared to be the opposite. Of the white polled, 58% said people had found an excuse for looting, even while 32% believe that the disturbances stemmed from long-term poor relations with police.
The survey determined that 53% percent of whites and 46% of blacks believe that racial disturbances are likely in the nearest metropolitan area. Most believe that further racial disturbances are likely this summer.
President Barack Obama said on April 28 opined about police officers “who aren’t doing the right thing,” while condemning the unwillingness of legislators to further invest in urban communities, while also coming out against the “criminals and thugs who tore up” Baltimore. He has called the various disturbances along racial lines a “slow-rolling crisis” and has become more pointed in his appraisals of law officers’ handling of race issues.
In August 2014, following the riots and demonstrations in Ferguson over the death of Michael Brown, Obama called for community healing and said there is never an excuse for violence against the police, nor an excuse for excessive force on the part of the police. In the days after the Ferguson riots, Obama condemned the disparities in the criminal justice system and called for an investigation into the causes of disproportionate jailing of young minority men. “The situation in Ferguson speaks to the broader challenges that we still face as a nation,” Obama said in November 2014. “The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.”
Obama appeared to become more pointed in his critique of law enforcement in December 2014, calling for new standards in the provision of surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies as well as a task force on police. “I’m being pretty explicit about my concern and being pretty explicit about the fact that this is a systemic problem that black folks and Latinos and others are not just making this up,” Obama said.
However, since the Baltimore riots, Obama appears to be shifting his message while calling for a time of national reflection. “We have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals–primarily African-American, often poor–in ways that raise troubling questions,” Mr. Obama said on April 28 while hosting Japanese premier Shinzo Abe. “And it comes up, it seems like, once a week now, or once every couple of weeks.”
The Fraternal Order of Police, Obama said should “to acknowledge this is not good for police. We have to own up to the fact that occasionally there’s going to be problems here just as there are in every other occupation.’’
Obama also described his efforts to address complaints against law enforcement, including the police task force and a grant program for agencies that wish to buy body cameras for officers. As on other issues, Obama complained about the GOP-controlled Congress. The stalling of his proposed economic program and changes for nonviolent drug offenses, he said, have exacerbated the situation in American cities. “I’m under no illusion that out of this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in urban communities,” he said. “And so we’ll try to find areas where we can make a difference around school reform and around job training, and around some investments in infrastructure in these communities trying to attract new businesses.” He added, “We all understand that the politics of that are tough, because it’s easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law-and-order issue, as opposed to a broader social issue.”
Obama’s senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, averred that some systemic challenges will take time to resolve. She said, “There’s a lot of positive change happening, but it’s happening at the state and local level,” adding, “His frustration is that Congress is unwilling to step up to the plate.”
As for Baltimore, tensions remain high. In some instances, residents have helped stores to clean up the mess left behind by rioters, while some business are slated to close permanently due to losses incurred during the riots. The family of Freddie Gray, as well as numerous religious and civic leaders, have called for calm.