POLITICS

Harry Reid Defends Baltimore Protesters: 'Let's Not Pretend The System Is Fair'

04/28/2015 06:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Baltimore's violent protests are an understandable response to a system that's rigged in favor of the rich and leaves young people with little hope or opportunity, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday afternoon.

"We cannot condone the violence we see in Baltimore, but we must not ignore the despair and hopelessness that gives rise to this kind of violence," Reid said on the Senate floor, condemning the violence in a way that seemed more dutiful than heartfelt. "So let’s condemn the violence, but let’s not ignore the underlying problem."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, was less interested in the root cause of the unrest, instead calling for law enforcement to crack down. "I hope the investigation into illegal behavior will be be concluded soon and those who've been engaged in criminal behavior will be promptly pursued and charged," McConnell said.

McConnell was referring not to the police officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody this month from a spinal injury, but rather to those in the streets. Reid, who is retiring at the end of 2016, put the focus on Gray, who was arrested after running from police, allegedly after making eye contact with an officer. "Mr. Gray’s death is the latest in a series of disturbing and unnecessary deaths of young men of color at the hands of police and vigilantes," Reid said.

Reid added that if he were a young boy today facing similar circumstances, he doesn't know how he would respond. "Let’s not pretend the path from poverty like the one I traveled is still available to everyone out there as long as they work hard," he said. "For hard work to bear fruit, there must be opportunity and there must be hope. I can't imagine what direction my life would have taken without the hope of the American dream.

"It doesn’t matter if you live in Searchlight or Las Vegas, in Baltimore or rural Maryland: When there is no hope, anger and despair move in," Reid said. "Let’s not pretend the system is fair. Let’s not pretend everything is okay."

The rioting on Monday night shouldn't distract from the injustice that led to the riot, Reid said. “We should not let the violence perpetrated by a few to become an excuse to ignore the underlying problem: that millions of Americans feel powerless in the face of a system that is rigged against them. It’s easy to feel powerless when you see the rich getting richer while opportunities to build a better life for yourself and your family are nonexistent in your own community," he said. "This isn’t just about inner cities. This is about the deep, crushing poverty that infects rural and suburban communities across the country."

Reid said it's easy to understand why young people were angry enough to turn violent. "It’s easy to feel devalued when schools in your community are failing. It’s easy to believe the system is rigged against you when you spend years watching what President Obama called today 'a slow-rolling crisis' of troubling police interactions with people of color," he said.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday chided the media and the public for neglecting impoverished neighborhoods in Baltimore and elsewhere, which only become newsworthy when a particularly atrocious act by police is publicized. "If we really want to solve the problem, we could," he said. "It's just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant and that we just don't pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns. And we don't just pay attention when a man gets shot or has his spine snapped," Obama said.

That man, Reid said, deserves to be remembered. "A man is dead who should not be dead. His name was Freddie Gray," said Reid.

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