Chris Christie's Offhand Remark On "Criminals" Was The GOP Debate's Lowest Point

During the sixth GOP presidential debate on Thursday night, New Jersey governor Chris Christie was his usual strident, self-important self. Amid the various strategies he used to try to boost his flagging appeal ― he's currently trailing badly in the polls ― one line he tried in particular that was glaringly awful. Namely, Chris Christie claimed President Obama trusts "criminals" over cops, saying that he and Attorney General Loretta Lynch give "the benefit of the doubt" to them in cases of alleged police misconduct.

It's no surprise that anti-police violence activist groups like Black Lives Matter didn't get much shine in the debate; the candidates are Republicans and therefore reflexively protective of/in denial about institutional racism and abusive use of force by the state. Other candidates offered up similar pro-law enforcement platitudes, while failing to engage honestly with the opposing arguments ― Donald Trump claimed that police were the most mistreated people in America, for example ― but still, Christie's commentary stuck out as particularly galling.

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Here's what he said, when asked by FBN moderator Neil Cavuto about heightened scrutiny of law enforcement in recent years.

Well, first off, let's face it, the FBI director Jim Comey who's a friend of mine, who I worked with as U.S. Attorney of New Jersey, he was the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. He said it, there's a chill wind blowing through law enforcement in this country. Here's why: The president of the United States and both his attorney's general, they give the benefit of the doubt to the criminal, not to the police officer. That's the truth of the matter. And you see it every time with this president. Every time he's got a chance, going all the way back to, remember that great Beer Summit he had, after he messed up that time. This is a guy who just believes that law enforcement are the bad guys.

Now, if you're the kind of person who's passionate about police brutality, especially as it relates to the decidedly egregious treatment of black Americans, this probably sounds pretty damn offensive, and also pretty detached from reality. In truth, President Obama's rhetoric whenever one of these high-profile instances of police violence or lethal use of force takes place often leaves much to be desired on the activist side.

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Even when Obama has spoken out to voice his sympathy for aggrieved communities that have been stricken over the last couple of years ― from Ferguson to Baltimore to New York City to Cleveland to Chicago ― the president has sometimes indulged in a brand of respectability politics that's roiled some of his own supporters. Like stressing what a tough job law enforcement is, and repeatedly urging people outraged by a categorically racist criminal justice system to keep their protests peaceful ― for instance, after the non-indictment of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, or after the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren WIlson in the shooting death of Mike Brown.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with peaceful protests, free from property damage or violence ― it's the moral ideal, although as Dr. Martin Luther King eloquently laid out more than once, there's an underlying psychological rationale to rioting that demands proper understanding.

But this is a style of insistent, suggestive cautioning that's been fixated squarely on black protest movements for years, and it has some the troubling effect of stigmatizing the anger of black Americans, even when that anger is justified by egregious circumstances. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, Obama has played into this narrative before, echoing some of the paternalistic tones of white politicians like Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, who intoned "this is a test" before declaring a curfew during the Ferguson protests. That's not to say it's exactly the same message, coming from a white southerner versus our first black president, but it's a tension that's been hotly debated on social media when Obama speaks on these issues.

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Now, to be sure, Obama's Justice Department has launched federal investigations into those cases, as well as those of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and 22-year-old John Crawford of Ohio. But if Christie's to the point of calling the very existence of an investigation "giving the benefit of the doubt to the criminal" ― both Rice and Crawford, by the way, were not criminals, and were fatally shot within seconds while in possession of toy guns ― then is any investigation of a police officer appropriate?

Perhaps needless to say, Christie's remarks were wildly offensive for their layered levels of dishonesty. And even though you probably could've guessed the reaction it would draw ― a stout ovation from the assembled conservative crowd ― it still stings the ears to hear that kind of proud callousness on display. An auditorium full of adults, cheering the idea that the government is out to get police officers (while available numbers show the exact opposite), all while countless black protesters are taking to the streets, screaming for their lives? That's a pure vision of white supremacy, regardless of the individual views of the people who were applauding.

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For Christie, however, it was also a classic political twofer: aggressive pandering to the GOP base and its aggrieved feelings towards black protest movements (and more specifically, black protest itself), and trolling anybody watching who actually cared about the issue. We probably shouldn't have expected much better from him, though ― back in October, he claimed to CBS' John Dickerson that Black Lives Matter was "calling for the murdering of police officers," and just weeks later, he preemptively announced that he would never meet with anyone from the organization.