Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson traveled to Baltimore, a city he called home for decades, to meet with religious and community leaders on Thursday about how to address building racial tensions and distrust in police.
Carson is the first Republican presidential candidate to meet with Baltimore residents since the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray — others have only made remarks from a distance.
In a meeting with a small number of community leaders, Carson discussed his personal experiencing living in the city. He talked about seeing black community members targeted and beat up by police. He also blamed government spending for what he called the “abrupt halt” in progress for the country’s black community, even though federal programs have kept millions of Americans out of poverty.
Even if Carson’s anti-government rhetoric doesn’t resonate with Baltimore leaders, activists said his willingness to reach out when other candidates will not is significant. David Blair, a youth leader with the Baltimore-based social justice organization New Lens, told ThinkProgress that politicians can benefit the community when they listen to people on the ground who are engaged in long-term organizing. But problems arise when national figures drop in to meet with other leaders who may not be engaged with the community.
“We shouldn’t be invited to a table that is ours in the first place,” he said. “They should be coming to our communities and talking to us, not us having to go and hunt them down in order for us to get a quick meeting.”
Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor and a likely Democratic candidate, visited Baltimore amid the protests but was met with a less-than-warm reception. He was heckled and greeted by residents who blamed the recent violence on his tough-on-crime policies.
“I just wanted to be present. There’s a lot of pain in our city right now, a lot of people feeling very sad,” O’Malley told reporters at the scene.
In the past weeks, as protests in Baltimore have launched the city into the national spotlight, Carson has repeatedly spoken out about the issues that led to unrest. He told CNN that “something went wrong” during the arrest of Freddie Gray.
“I should first of all say, I have had lots of interactions with the Baltimore police and the vast, vast majority are wonderful people, and that’s the case with police across the country,” Carson said. He then added that people “have lost a significant degree of hope, and, you know, they see an opportunity to loot and fill their pockets and they don’t feel like they are going to get that opportunity in a legitimate way. Those kinds of people are easy to manipulate.”
He also said he understood that State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby acted quickly to bring charges “because she was sitting on a powder keg and needed to do something to calm the situation down.” But during his meeting Thursday, he said that he “probably wouldn’t have charged them to that degree.”
Carson has had a complicated relationship with his past home of Baltimore, where he worked as director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and African American communities across the country. Once heralded as a black hero — a neurosurgeon who worked his way up from his poor, inner-city upbringing — Carson’s transformation into a conservative commentator known for his critique of President Obama has driven a wedge between him and the black community.
“Has he lost his sense of who he is?” the Rev. Jamal Bryant, a prominent black pastor in Baltimore, told the Washington Post.
After the police shooting in Ferguson, MO last year, Carson said the incident had nothing to do with race and that “anger issues” can get in the way for young men.
“If you take race out of the issue altogether and you take a group of young men and you raise them with no respect for authority, not learning to take on personal responsibility, having easy access to drugs and alcohol, they’re very likely to end up as victims of violence or incarceration,” he said. “Has nothing to do with race.”
Rand Paul was the first 2016 presidential contender to visit Ferguson to reach out to civil rights leaders and call out the racist policing that led to the death of an unarmed teenager. But since launching his campaign, Paul’s tone has changes. As protests swept Baltimore, he blamed “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers” and the lack of a “moral code in our society” for the unrest.