Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley took the stage Friday at the National Urban League Conference and attempted to cast himself as someone who was sensitive to and determined to end racism in police departments and the criminal justice system. His speech came two weeks after he said “All lives matter” in response to #BlackLivesMatter protesters, a comment that drew heavy criticism.
O’Malley treaded lightly Friday, acknowledging racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system while speaking broadly, if vaguely, about justice for all. “How can we save lives?” he asked in the early minutes of his speech at the conference, held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and run by the National Urban League, a civil rights advocacy group.
During his speech, the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor also invoked the names of two unarmed black people who were recently killed after brief interactions with law enforcement, saying in part that racism and the justice system have always been “painfully intertwined” in America. “How many individuals, like Sandra Bland, have been subject to abusive arrest when the cameras were not on?" he asked. “How many Walter Scotts have been savagely shot down? ... How many names do we not know?”
Bland was a 28-year-old Chicago-area woman who was found dead in her Texas jail cell July 13, three days after being arrested following a traffic stop. Scott was a 50-year-old man shot multiple times and killed by a white police officer, Michael Slager, in North Charleston, South Carolina, in April. Slager initially said Scott had attempted to steal his Taser, but his claims were proved false after a civilian bystander shared video footage of Scott’s death he had recorded with a cellphone camera.
O'Malley did not mention Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in April from injuries incurred during a brief stint in police custody in Baltimore, where O'Malley served as mayor from 1999 to 2007. Gray's death sparked violent protests and riots, and current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake imposed a weeklong emergency curfew.
O’Malley’s remarks Friday seemed intended to make up for his comments July 18 at the Netroots Nation event in Phoenix, where protesters from the movement #BlackLivesMatter demanded he speak about the deaths of black people at the hands of white police. O’Malley responded by stating, “Black lives matter. White Lives matter. All lives matter.”
Every video that captures the death of a black person at the hands of white police served as a reminder of how far America still had to go, O’Malley said Friday. Still, his comments fell short of unequivocally condemning racism in the justice system, sounding more like platitudes than bold statements, even when they touched on race.
“We must improve policing and the way we police our police, in order to rebuild trust,” he said at one point. At another, he said, “Voices for justice never die,” and then referred specifically to Bland. “We are hearing her voice right now,” he said.
Four other presidential candidates accepted invitations to speak at the National Urban League Conference. Republican Ben Carson and Democrat Hillary Clinton preceded O’Malley on Friday, while Republican Jeb Bush and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination, were scheduled to follow.