At a campaign rally in Tennessee on Saturday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke about criminal justice, ignoring concerns about police brutality that have become a central issue this election. Instead, he said he would give more power to police officers and work to “get rid” of gangs.
Trump spoke about the protests that erupted in Baltimore after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody. “That first night in Baltimore, they allowed that city to be destroyed,” he said. “They set it back 35 years in one night because the police weren’t allowed to protect people. We need law and order.”
The business mogul did not mention the six police officers who are standing trial this week for Gray’s death, but he did draw attention to gang members in cities like Baltimore and Chicago.
“We’re going to get rid of those gang members so fast your head will spin,” he said.
But Kiona Mack, a 25-year old Baltimore resident who knew Gray and recorded one of the now-viral cellphone videos of him being dragged into a police van, said Trump’s comments prove how little he understands about the systematic problems in Baltimore and police brutality across the country.
“To me the biggest gang is the police department,” she told ThinkProgress. “If he wants to get rid of the gangs, then he needs to reform the judicial system.”
Megan Kenny, a Baltimore activist, told ThinkProgress she understood Mack’s point. The Baltimore police department’s behavior fits the definition of a gang — officers take action without consequences and play by their own rules, even when there are rules laid out for them to follow, she said.
In true Trump fashion, he vowed in his Tennessee speech to eliminate gangs without providing any details about how he would go about that task. But Mack said that Trump can’t address gang violence without acknowledging the problems that gangs were formed in reaction to, including police violence.
“Gangs have a negative connotation but when they were first initiated, they weren’t supposed to be something that hurt the community,” she said. “It was a form of security for the community against police brutality and injustice and racism.”
In response to Trump’s focus on gangs, Kenny pointed out that the connections between Baltimore gangs and the April protests has been discredited. She also said that Trump needs to address the causes of gang violence — including the drug war and mandatory minimum sentences — in order to “get rid” of gangs.
“As a society, if we really want to solve some of these crime problems, we really need to look at the root source, and it’s the ‘war on drugs,’” Kenny said. “Violence is bad but if [Trump] thinks getting rid of gangs will change anything, then he’s not understanding why those things exist in the first place. And if you don’t know why, you can’t solve it.”
Those systematic problems were also what led to the uprising in Baltimore after Gray’s death, but by focusing on the rioting, Trump is completely missing the bigger picture, Kenny said.
“Was he here?” Kenny asked. “Did he see the rest of the city that remained untouched? Was he here the day after for the clean-up when hundreds and hundreds of people were out cleaning up the community and taking back the narrative?”
Trump also talked about how a greater police presence in Baltimore could have prevented the destruction, calling for the government to give more power to police across the country.
Kenny said she’s “not sure how much more power they can have.”
“They have power that’s exhibited everyday when they can take eye contact as a threat and pursue people,” she said. “In Baltimore, there’s many cases of deaths at the hands of the police. And a lot of those officers in those cases are still on the job. The power to take a life and remain on your job is to me, the ultimate power.”
Other presidential candidates had similarly responses to the protests in Baltimore after Gray’s funeral in April that ignored the underlying issues. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) said that President Barack Obama has “inflamed racial tensions,” while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) blamed the breakdown of the family structure for the uprising.
As the candidates develop their policy platforms, Black Lives Matter and other activists are calling on them to address the systematic problems that lead to police violence and result in black people like Gray losing their lives in police custody. One initiative, Campaign Zero, is calling for the limited use of force by law enforcement and greater community representation in police departments, among other reforms.