The Rev. Al Sharpton in Baltimore Thursday calls for the Justice Department to step in and take over policing in the U.S. and hold bad officers accountable. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)
The Rev. Al Sharpton gave an aggressive defense Thursday of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's handling of recent unrest, saying it was time to "end the scapegoating."
At a summit of religious and other leaders at New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore, the New York-based civil rights activist said criticism of the mayor's performance during the violence of the past week has been unfair.
"Don't blame the mayor for what the last 50 years of mayors and governors didn't do," said Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and an MSNBC host.
He contended that the events that sparked looting and burning in Baltimore this week — particularly the death of Freddie Gray after suffering a spinal cord injury while in police custody — were a national issue. He pointed to a string of cases in which African-American men died after encounters with police — in Ferguson, Mo.; North Charleston, S.C. and on Staten Island, N.Y.
"We can't keep running like hamsters on a treadmill from one town to the next," he said.
Rawlings-Blake has faced criticism for waiting to request activation of the National Guard as rioting spread across the city Monday. Sharpton and others praised her Thursday for trying to change state law to make it easier to discipline police officers. Her proposal to change Maryland's "bill of rights" for police was rejected by the General Assembly.
"Because of the laws in the state, we can't do anything until after the trial is over," Rawlings-Blake said. She pointed out that authorities in South Carolina could fire the North Charleston police officer who was caught on video April 4 shooting an unarmed black man in the back as he was charged with murder. The six officers involved in Gray's arrest have been suspended with pay, a move that critics have equated to a paid vacation.
When she went to Annapolis to push for changes to the law, the mayor said, "people looked at me as if I had three eyes."
The mayor promised that "we will get justice for Freddie Gray" and defended the steps she has taken to reform Baltimore's policing practices. Rawlings-Blake noted that even before Gray's arrest April 12 she had asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Baltimore Police Department, saying that was the strongest action she could take short of entering into a consent decree.
"Nobody wants the Department of Justice to come in and take over our city," she said.
Sharpton said his organization would help the Rev. Donte Hickman of Southern Baptist Church raise money to build the community center and apartments that burned while under construction. Fire officials have not determined whether the fire in East Baltimore structure was connected to the rioting.
The event, attended by many Baltimore clergy members and civil rights activists, also heard from Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, and Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP.
Praising Rawlings-Blake, Morial warned against "political infighting."
"Don't get head-faked, don't get distracted, don't get deceived," he said. "We have to focus on justice for Fred Gray."