After more than a week of protest and outrage over police killings of black men, Barack Obama answered questions at a town hall event on Thursday that offered few concrete answers but cautious optimism that issues of race and violence in the US are better than they have been, and can improve more with dialogue and empathy.
“Because of the history of this country and the legacy of race, and all the complications that are involved with that, working through these issues so that things can continue to get better will take some time,” the US president said.
The first two questions came from Cameron Sterling, the 15-year-old son of Alton Sterling, who was killed by police in Baton Rouge, and from Diamond Reynolds, the fiancee of Philando Castile who narrated his shooting death by an officer in Minneapolis on Facebook Live. Obama also took questions from the mother of a Baltimore police officer, from a Black Lives Matter organizer, and from Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, among others.
Throughout the night Obama tried to strike a conciliatory tone, much like he did in his speech Tuesday in Dallas, where five police officers were killed by a gunman during a protest march last week. Virtually all of the president’s answers to questions came in two parts, either speaking to the concerns of protesters, and buttressing with a call to not demonize police officers, or visa versa.
A response to a question about racial bias in policing was characteristic of this equivocating throughout the event: “What is true for a lot of African American men is there’s a greater presumption of dangerousness that arises from the social and cultural perceptions that have been fed to folks for a long time,” Obama said, then adding, “but black folks and Latino folks also carry some assumptions. You may see a police officer who’s doing everything right, and you already assumed the worst rather than the best in him, and we have to guard against that as well.”
Most of the questions Obama fielded were open ended pleas for his help in making progress, such as Reynolds who, after saying she was scared for her daughter’s future simply asked, “What do we do?”
Patrick on the other hand used the moment to accuse the president of not being a firm enough supporter of law enforcement, suggesting police do not “really in their heart feel like you’re doing everything you can to protect their lives”.
Obama responded: “I have been unequivocal in condemning any rhetoric directed at police officers so I think, lieutenant governor, you’d be hard pressed to find any message that did not include a very strong support for law enforcement.”
Obama also repeatedly tried to validate the concerns of protesters, for example coming to the defense of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying the phrase “refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability.”
Obama, like he has in other statements throughout the week, ultimately pleaded for mutual understanding and empathy between activists and law enforcement. “Kindness and compassion expressed by these two sides … that makes a big difference,” Obama said. “Sometimes people just want acknowledgment.”
The town hall, which was broadcast on ABC stations and hosted by David Muir was taped earlier in the afternoon Thursday in Washington DC.
Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner who was killed by NYPD officers in Staten Island exactly two years ago Thursday, took to Twitter in the midst of the taping to call the town hall a “farce” and a “sham”, saying she had been falsely promised by ABC news that she would have an opportunity to ask the president a question.
It was reported that after these complaints, Garner was able to speak with the president directly, but that meeting apparently did not alleviate her disenchantment with the event’s tone or execution.
“They lied to me and my family to get us to travel to DC to participate. Taking time away from things I had planned to remember my father,” Garner said on Twitter.
Her criticism of the event seemed to be widely shared by activists and even many journalists, who portrayed it as at worst pandering and offensive, and at best, unproductive.
The town hall followed a four-and-a-half hour meeting with activists and law enforcement officials the president held Wednesday.
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