Obama Urges Americans to Reject Despair After Violence

  • Society’s bonds strained, former president George W. Bush says
  • Obama to hold White House discussions with police, activists

Obama on Dallas Shootings: U.S. Must Reject Despair

President Barack Obama urged Americans to reject despair after the killings of five police officers in Dallas and two civilians at the hands of police in Minnesota and Louisiana last week, acknowledging that the violence has torn the fabric of U.S. society.

“I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week,” Obama said Tuesday at a memorial service for the slain officers in Dallas. He called the officers’ deaths “an act not just of demented violence but of racial hatred.”

Joined by his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama sought to puncture the ballooning anxiety gripping Americans amid a seemingly relentless series of high-profile violent incidents.

“It’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse,” he said. “But Dallas, I’m here to say: We must reject such despair.”

Obama and his aides sensed the nation’s combustibility in the aftermath of both the Dallas shooting and a pair of racially charged police killings that preceded it, deciding to scrap a day of sightseeing in Spain in favor of returning earlier to Washington after meetings with European leaders. Obama opted to deliver a speech at a memorial service to ensure broad media coverage, and will meet privately with families of the slain officers afterward.

Straddle Divide

He phoned the families of the two black men killed by police, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul, while flying to Dallas. In his remarks, Obama attempted to straddle the divide between police and minority communities, arguing that it was wrong both to paint “all police officers as biased or bigots” and to diminish the complaints of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We cannot turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid,” he said. “We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism.”

Before Obama spoke, Bush saluted the five slain officers and cautioned against divisiveness.

‘Strained’ Bonds

“At times it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together,” Bush said. “Argument turns too easily to animosity. Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.”

Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, also spoke at the service and thanked Obama and his wife for attending. Obama was joined aboard Air Force One by Texas’s junior senator, Republican Ted Cruz, one of the president’s fiercest antagonists in Congress. Cruz’s office said in a brief statement that the White House had invited the senator to accompany Obama.

With his remarks, Obama reprised an all-too-familiar role as consoler-in-chief, making the case that despite fear and anger provoked by the recent spasm of violence, the nation can overcome its toughest challenges on racial issues. He has used ministerial rhetoric to great effect before, most memorably in the aftermath of the June 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, where he punctuated his remarks with a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

‘Inadequate’ Words

“I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency,” Obama said in Dallas. “I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about change. I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.”

Obama has repeatedly expressed frustration that Congress has not acted to tighten restrictions on guns after a string of mass shootings, beginning with the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.

White House officials acknowledge that Obama has been viewed skeptically by some in the fraternity of police since he criticized an officer who arrested a black Harvard professor at his own home -- a perception that has intensified through his support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The president is also aware that his push for stricter gun measures risks dividing the U.S. electorate.

Overburdened Police

Obama said that conflicts between the police and communities they serve arise in part because “we ask police departments to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves” by declining to adequately fund mental health treatment, education and other public services.

“And then we tell the police, you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor,” Obama said. “We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience.”

“And then we feign surprise when the tensions periodically boil over,” he said

‘Right Way’

Since the deadly July 7 attack in Dallas, Obama has invoked the somber image of city officers dying while helping to protect those protesting the police killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.

In addressing the incidents, Obama has noted that leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have denounced violence against officers, and the growing sense among both police and ordinary Americans that more must be done to address racial disparity within the criminal justice system.

The president going to the vigil “suggests that he’s someone who cares about law enforcement,” Cedric Alexander, a member of the President’s task force on community policing and deputy chief operating officer for public safety in DeKalb County, Georgia, said in a phone interview.

At the end of the service, Obama, his wife Michelle, Bush and his wife Laura, and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, held hands as a choir sung “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Obama and the first lady later visited with families of officers who were killed and wounded. The Bidens and George and Laura Bush also participated.

The Dallas department has adopted several federal initiatives to improve relations with minority communities by releasing data about police interactions. The city’s police chief has also required his officers to more frequently attend use of force training, forbid individuals from pursuing suspects on foot without a partner, and adopted police body cameras.

“The Dallas police department has been doing it the right way,” Obama said.

The president has said that Dallas police exercised restraint amid the chaos of the shooting, injuring none of the protesters who were marching with rifles and other weapons. That serves as a contrast to cities like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Ferguson, Missouri, where police have confronted demonstrators with riot gear.

On Wednesday, Obama plans to host minority leaders and police officials at the White House in a bid to repair frayed relations. Obama has previously acknowledged that nothing he says on mass shootings will advance gun control measures as long as Congress remains unwilling to act, while on race relations it will take years more to finish undoing the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

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