2020 Elections

Pete Buttigieg met with Black Lives Matter after a police shooting. It didn't go well

Key Points
  • After a fatal police shooting threatened Pete Buttigieg's presidential ambitions, the mayor talked with representatives from the activist group Black Lives Matter over the summer.
  • "I remember he felt very rushed, as if he wanted to check it off a box as something that he did," said one activist who was on a call with the presidential contender.
  • Buttigieg's presidential campaign declined to comment on the discussions, which included a meeting in his office, and denied repeated requests to make the candidate available for an interview.
Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Annual International Convention on July 2, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Buttigieg is dealing with racial tension in South Bend following the shooting death of Eric Logan, a black man, who was shot by South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill, who is white.
Scott Olson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

As he runs for president, Pete Buttigieg has tried to contain the public fallout from the fatal police shooting this summer of a 54-year-old black father in South Bend, Indiana. Instead, his closed-door efforts have only exacerbated his problems with black activists.

Members of Black Lives Matter, who met privately with Buttigieg in the weeks after the shooting, say the 37-year-old Democratic mayor brushed off their concerns about police violence in the city he has led since 2012.

"He seemed to have already taken a side. It did seem that he was prioritizing who he thought was important, and it didn't seem to be black people," said Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter who participated in a July call between the mayor and activists.

"I remember he felt very rushed, as if he wanted to check it off a box as something that he did," said Abdullah, who is a professor at California State University in Los Angeles.

That July phone call, and a meeting in his South Bend office the following month, marked the first-ever discussions between Buttigieg and Black Lives Matter, an influential racial justice activist group. By the end of August, the local chapter of the group called for Buttigieg to step down as mayor.

Buttigieg has faced questions about his record on race on the national stage. Pressed in June during the first Democratic debate on the diminishing diversity of South Bend's police department throughout his tenure as mayor, Buttigieg said that "I couldn't get it done."

During the call and subsequent meeting with Black Lives Matter, activists pushed Buttigieg to address the disparities they saw between the national figure they witnessed campaigning on a forceful pledge to go after systemic racism, and the local public official who, they felt, caved to bureaucratic obstacles and political opposition.

The conversations between Buttigieg and Black Lives Matter, which each lasted about half an hour, were intended to be private, and have not been previously reported. Members of Black Lives Matter agreed to discuss them after CNBC reviewed documentation of the meetings on the mayor's calendars, which were obtained using public records laws.

Some of the individuals who discussed the meetings with CNBC agreed to do so only on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Buttigieg's presidential campaign declined to comment on the meetings, and denied repeated requests to make Buttigieg available for an interview. In a statement, a city spokesman said Buttigieg had made it a priority to give residents an opportunity to share their perspectives about how to rebuild trust with the police department.

"Those discussions have included residents who have been supportive of our efforts and those who have been critical of our efforts, because we strongly believe in the value of working through community challenges through good-faith, productive conversations," said the spokesman.

Read more: Residents of South Bend's poor neighborhoods say Pete Buttigieg left them behind

Buttigieg, who has struggled to regain his early momentum in national polls, has failed to attract the support of black voters amid scrutiny of his record on race in South Bend. That criticism was compounded after South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O'Neill shot and killed Eric Logan on Father's Day this year. It forced Buttigieg off the campaign trail and exposed a national audience to the controversies over race and policing that have roiled the city for years.

O'Neill, who did not activate his body camera and claims Logan was approaching him with a knife, has since resigned from his position.

While Buttigieg's campaign did not initially provide a comment, a spokesperson referred CNBC to Nimbi Cushing, a 70-year-old black woman who is active in the South Bend community, and who supports the mayor. Cushing said she understands the complaints that Black Lives Matter raised, but believes the problems can't all be blamed on the mayor.

"I would say there are probably more blacks who would be against [Buttigieg] or who would say he hasn't been active on behalf of blacks in the way he could have or should have," Cushing said. "But I am not one of those people. I think he has made some mistakes which he has apologized for."

She added: "My attitude is trying to give somebody another chance, and I'm sure that they feel like he's run out of chances, but the bottom line for me is that I believe he is an honest man and he tries his best."

After this story was originally published, campaign spokesman Sean Savett said in a statement that while Buttigieg is "the first to acknowledge that more needs to be done," the mayor has taken a number of steps to bridge the gap between police and communities of color in South Bend.

Those steps include requiring all police officers to take civil rights training, installing a majority-minority civilian police board and outfitting every police officer in the patrol division with body cameras, he said.

Disagreements, promises unmet

The biggest disagreement between the Black Lives Matter activists and Buttigieg concerned his refusal to fire South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski. Activists have pushed for the chief to be fired over O'Neill's failure to activate his body camera, and for what they describe as a history of unresponsiveness to the black community.

Buttigieg told the activists during the phone call and subsequent meeting that he had ruled out firing the chief. But, the activists said, he did not have any answers for their follow-up questions.

"He tried to argue that there was support for the chief, and that there were members of the public who wanted more police," said Jorden Giger, an activist who was at the August meeting. "I said, that's true, but when you think about these issues, who is the public that you're thinking about? The white public or the black public?"

Buttigieg took notes, but did not have an answer, Giger said.

The activists said they also pressed Buttigieg in August to deliver on promises that he had made to them in July concerning providing mental health resources to Logan's family members, and releasing data about how members of the police department fared in an online test administered by Harvard University that measures racial bias.

If he hasn't been able to win the support of black South Bend, I don't think he should win the support of black America.
Melina Abdullah
Black Lives Matter

At first, Buttigieg was receptive, they said. But in the weeks after the in-office meeting, these promises fizzled, as they were passed along to more city officials who ultimately turned them down, they said. Those city officials did not respond to requests for comment.

While Black Lives Matter originally scheduled private talks with the mayor hoping to have a productive dialogue, they said they became discouraged as the denials rolled in.

Moreover, the mayor had pledged to attend some of the community meetings the city had scheduled in the wake of the shooting to review police policies, they said. But there have been six so far, and he hasn't showed.

Instead, they said they were met by police officers openly carrying weapons, a sight they felt was meant to intimidate them, and which Eric Logan's brother, Tyree Bonds, said was "triggering" in a letter to the local paper. The police department did not respond to a request for comment.

Ultimately, the South Bend chapter of Black Lives Matter issued a call for Buttigieg to resign, penning a letter to the mayor that accused him of claiming "to be an ally to people of color but you have not acted like one."

"Pete Buttigieg, you were quick to inform the press that you would return from your presidential campaigning to respond to this tragedy, knowing that you'd be followed by their cameras," the letter said. "But when you met with representatives of our community, you transformed your excuse of 'I couldn't get it done' into an explicit 'I won't get it done.'"

A person close to the mayor took issue with the activists' complaints. The person said that the city is still researching how to provide mental health resources to Logan's family, but said the matter was complicated by a federal civil rights lawsuit the family filed against the city.

Regarding the aggregated police bias data, the person acknowledged the city was not able to provide it, but said that it did not diminish the city's goal of having an unbiased police force. The person said that while the mayor has not attended the community meetings to review police policies, many members of his staff did, showing that the meetings were a priority.

And the person referred CNBC to a statement Buttigieg made during a town hall in June, in which he said that some activists were invited to his office and decided not to join.

"Please accept the invitations when you are invited," Buttigieg said at the time. He added: "I would welcome more input from you on how I could do a better job at making people feel that they're actually welcome when invited to that table."

Abdullah, the activist with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles who visited South Bend in the wake of the Logan shooting, said her experience was that the mayor did not seem to have many fans in the black community there — a problem, she said, that could have national implications.

"If you ask black South Bend what they think of Mayor Pete, I don't think he has a very big fan base," she said. "So if he hasn't been able to win the support of black South Bend, I don't think he should win the support of black America."

How Pete Buttigieg makes his money
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