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On Baltimore, Race, and Policing: No Easy Answers for Hoyer

Hoyer tried to thread the needle on the Baltimore riots. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer's weekly pen-and-pad Tuesday was a case study for politicians looking to say something about the riots in Baltimore while also saying, largely, nothing.  

The Maryland Democrat did his best to show support for both police and protesters after a day of violent clashes in his home state's largest city — clashes sparked by unrest over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who was arrested in West Baltimore on April 12 and, while in police custody, suffered spinal cord injuries that led to his death. Hoyer expressed support for the police trying to control violent protests and looting. ("It is a tough, tough, tough job that we give our police to do.")  

But he also was careful to defend the right to peaceful protest.  

"Clearly," Hoyer said, summing up the essence of his remarks, "we need to make sure that every citizen is treated fairly and equally by law enforcement, just as we need to expect every citizen to respect our law enforcement."  

It was the sort of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hedging that skilled politicians have to perform every day. And Hoyer, now in his 17th term, proved once again that he's better at it than most.  

Speaking about Gray's death, Hoyer said investigators needed to determine how that happened, what occurred, so the community can have the facts — "whatever they may be."  

But he also called Monday's eruption of violence in Baltimore — the Baltimore Sun reported 144 vehicle fires, 15 structural fires and more than 200 arrests — "tragic and unfortunate."  

"This is not protesting," he said. "This is behavior which undermines a focus on the issue here."  

Hoyer reported that, in addition to the number of Maryland lawmakers he had spoken to — including the governor — he also had spoken to Congressional Black Caucus members Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri and Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland. Hoyer said he discussed what potential changes in police training could be adopted by the executive branch or by legislation in Congress.  

"I think there's a responsibility for us to look at what alternatives are available to us," Hoyer said.  

That almost sounds substantive. But Hoyer wasn't exactly promising anything.  

When he was asked directly about using the appropriations process — or advancing legislation that former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. advocated for that would have made it easier for the Justice Department to bring charges in Ferguson, Missouri — Hoyer said there were things Congress could do, but he wanted to hear from the new Attorney General Loretta Lynch first. "I thought she issued a very, very good statement yesterday," Hoyer said.  

Related: DOJ to Probe Baltimore at Maryland Delegation's Request Congressional Black Caucus Members React to Decision in Ferguson The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.