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Pete Buttigieg and the controversy around racial tensions in South Bend, explained

Buttigieg’s response to a police shooting was met with protests.

Presidential Candidates Attend Black Economic Alliance Forum In Charleston, South Carolina
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, right, participates in the Black Economic Alliance Forum with Soledad O’Brien at the Charleston Music Hall on June 15, 2019.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

“Pete has a black problem,” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the Daily Beast in a scathing indictment of 2020 presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The millennial mayor has been making the case that his experience as a small-city executive makes him fit for the Oval Office. But he’s run into a roadblock.

“I don’t know of one black person out of Indiana that supports him,” Fudge said.

Last week, Buttigieg addressed criticism at home, particularly from his black constituents, in the aftermath of a police shooting that exposed racial tensions in his town. A South Bend police officer shot and killed 54-year-old black resident Eric Logan on June 16, responding to reports that a man was breaking into cars with a knife. The police officer’s body camera was turned off at the time. The city is investigating the shooting.

“I’ve been off the campaign trail helping my community move through a tragic shooting of a resident of our community by a police officer,” Buttigieg said as he took the stage at the South Carolina Democratic Party’s convention on Saturday. “It is as if one member of our family died at the hands of another.”

Buttigieg canceled several campaign stops in the wake of the shooting, including a Democratic National Committee event and several fundraisers, to meet with community leaders and answer constituents’ questions. But he’s had a rocky homecoming. Several black residents openly questioned whether he cared more about winning the votes of black voters in places like South Carolina than he does about fixing the injustices in his city’s public offices.

“Are you really here because you care about blacks, or are you just here because you want to be the president?” one woman shouted at Buttigieg during a protest about the shooting, the New York Times reported.

Buttigieg has called outreach with minorities “one of the most important pieces of homework for our campaign,” after polling showed him garnering only 2 percent of black voters’ support. After the shooting, he told reporters he gets “why people are not satisfied, because I’m not satisfied, either. I hope it’s understood that it’s not out of any lack of trying.” That incident and the recent shooting have only amplified what has been a constant shadow over the mayor’s presidential campaign: his at times strained relationships with communities of color.

What we know so far about Buttigieg’s relationship with the black community in South Bend

The incident in question is about South Bend police officer Sgt. Ryan O’Neill, who engaged with Eric Logan in a parking lot at the Central High School Apartments in South Bend after a 911 call about car break-ins, the city’s prosecutor told local reporters. Logan reportedly exited a car and was approaching O’Neill with a knife when O’Neill shot him. Logan died in the hospital shortly after. A lawyer for Logan’s family filed a federal lawsuit against the city and O’Neill, citing excessive force.

Buttigieg returned to South Bend from a campaign event in Florida the day of the shooting. He has met with community members and city officials, as well as answered constituent questions. His presence hasn’t always been welcomed, though. Buttigieg was met with protests, as black residents questioned his dedication to their communities, particularly given his presidential ambitions.

“You’re running for president and you want black people to vote for you? That’s not going to happen,” another woman told the mayor, according to the Times’s report. Buttigieg responded, “Ma’am, I’m not asking for your vote.”

Buttigieg was also confronted at a South Bend town hall on the shooting, where black residents said racist police practices have gone unaddressed in their communities.

“As mayor of this city, I want to acknowledge those last two lines of effort — efforts to recruit more minority officers to the police department and efforts to introduce body cameras — have not succeeded,” Buttigieg said. He’s been quick to acknowledge the problem of racism in policing at large, calling it a problem that he wants to see fixed in his lifetime.

According to the Guardian, 90 percent of South Bend’s police officers are white.

“We need to have more town hall meetings where we give groups of people an opportunity to express themselves,” Michael Patton, president of the South Bend Chapter of the NAACP, told the local ABC station. “That’s one and part of the problem; people don’t feel like they’re being heard. We have to create more opportunities for that to happen. We have to create a way to communicate with our community the things that are happening.”

Notably, Buttigieg’s recent comments after the shooting have been criticized by the local police union, which put out a statement calling the mayor’s response “divisive” and “solely for his political gain and not the health of the city he serves.”

This isn’t the first time Buttigieg’s handling of outreach to his black constituents has been questioned.

In 2012, two months after taking office, Buttigieg fired black Police Chief Darryl Boykins for allegedly taping his white senior officers’ phone calls in an attempt to catch them using racist language, the New York Times reported. Critics argued that Buttigieg, who is white, took the side of white officers who accused Boykins of wrongdoing. He’s replaced Boykins with two white police chiefs. At the time, some in the community called for Buttigieg to be impeached over his handling of the matter, South Bend’s WNDU reported.

Buttigieg ran for reelection in 2015 and won with an overwhelming majority — beating the Republican candidate with 80 percent of the vote.

A core part of Buttigieg’s pitch for the White House is being questioned

The latest shooting incident has highlighted deeper tensions in South Bend, some closely tied to what Buttigieg now hails as some of his biggest accomplishments on the stump.

Eight years ago, South Bend saw a 3.9 percent drop in population during the recession and was deemed a “dying city.” Under Buttigieg’s mayorship, the city has reversed that narrative, a record he says makes him qualified for the White House. But increasingly, critics are asking: Who was the city revitalized for?

While much of South Bend is white, 40 percent of the city’s roughly 100,000 people are black and Latinx, according to recent census estimates. A city-commissioned study on racial inequalities in the city from 2017 found the black population in South Bend has higher levels of poverty and unemployment than the country. About 40 percent of black residents are living below the poverty line, and there’s an 11 percent unemployment rate in that community.

Buttigieg’s “1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days,” a project to knock down vacant and abandoned homes to develop the town, has been criticized for disregarding the communities of color — something Buttigieg has acknowledged.

The housing project reportedly sowed some early distrust between Buttigieg and the communities of color. The homes that were destroyed were primarily in black and Latinx neighborhoods. The program pressured homeowners to repair the homes by raising fees and fines on code violations. If the repairs weren’t made, the homes were leveled. The city didn’t knock down homes that had residents, but in some cases, the policy meant the city was bulldozing homes that people of color had bought as investment property with hopes of renovating and improving down the line.

That said, as Zack Beauchamp wrote, Buttigieg did address some of the communities’ immediate concerns by giving out grants to residents to make repairs.

Still, racial inequality in the community remains high. Buttigieg has proposed the broad outlines of a racial justice agenda on the presidential trail, including criminal justice reform, investing in home ownership and defending affirmative action.

And returning to the 2020 stump in South Carolina — an early primary state with a strong African American Democratic voter base where more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates were courting votes last weekend — Buttigieg also attempted to translate the shooting into a presidential campaign message.

“My community is one that believes in safety and justice. We will heal and we will come stronger in the broken places,” Buttigieg said. Then he pivoted back to a familiar speech about Democrats’ need to reclaim the term “freedom.”

“Freedom is at stake if there is a veil of mistrust between community members and officers sworn to keep them safe,” he said.

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