Black police association chairwoman skips Trump’s speech at SC criminal justice forum

Leaders of the National Black Police Association said they were blindsided that President Donald Trump would deliver remarks at Benedict College in South Carolina.

Chairwoman Sonia Pruitt told McClatchy DC that she and board members of her organization — among the official co-hosts of the three-day criminal justice forum for 2020 presidential candidates at the historically black college in Columbia — were so opposed to Trump’s appearance they ultimately chose not to attend Trump’s speech in person on Friday.

“Just this week, our president used racially charged language to describe impeachment,” Pruitt said in a phone interview shortly after Trump had concluded his hour-long remarks.

“To just so freely use the word ‘lynching’ and then come to speak at a historically black college and university and claim to support criminal justice reform — well, we have some questions about that.”

Their disappointment underscores the tensions surrounding the president’s highly-anticipated visit Friday, where protesters surrounded the campus and at one point Columbia’s mayor, Steve Benjamin, sought to have the speech relocated across town.

Pruitt said her association was “disturbed (Trump) received an award from the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, of which we are member.”

In recognition for signing the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill which seeks to end mass incarceration of low-level offenders, the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center awarded Trump its “highest honor given annually to a public servant who has demonstrated the ability to work across the aisle to achieve meaningful progress in reforming our criminal justice system.”

In addition, Pruitt noted it was unfair that Trump had been given a 60-minute forum to speak at Benedict without a chance for anyone to ask questions or exchange ideas. This was a departure from the format that was supposed to apply to all presidential candidates invited to participate in the criminal justice conference at Benedict, and which will still apply to the Democratic participants on Saturday and Sunday.

“Our organization was not aware that we were here to see campaign speeches but were here to hear about the specific subject of criminal justice reform,” said Pruitt.

Trump’s speech, which lasted just under an hour, at often times veered into the political terrain. He thanked S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster for supporting his presidential bid in 2016 when “it wasn’t fashionable.”

He gave a shout-out to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in the audience, noting how the lawmaker’s resolution to condemn Democratic impeachment proceedings now had 50 co-sponsors.

Trump compared the plight of wrongfully accused men and women to his being targeted for impeachment by congressional Democrats.

At one point, a chant of “four more years” broke out in the crowd, which was half filled with White House invitees, some guests of the state Republican Party and just seven students of Benedict College.

Pruitt clarified that their group’s opposition had nothing to do with Trump’s party affiliation but with his past statements, actions and political rhetoric.

“Because our organization is very community-based, because many of our supporters are just regular people in the community, we did not want to give the impression that we would do or support anything that was not equitable,” said Pruitt.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.