President Obama defended the Black Lives Matter movement Tuesday at a memorial service for five slain Dallas police officers, saying bigotry remains a problem in police departments across the U.S.
While paying tribute to the fallen officers for sacrificing their lives to protect anti-police protesters from a sniper, Mr. Obama also called on law enforcement agencies to root out bias that he said is contributing to violence on the streets of America.
“We have all seen this bigotry in our lives at some point,” Mr. Obama told an audience of about 2,500 at a concert hall in Dallas. “None of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune. And that includes our police departments. We know this.”
The officers — Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa — were killed during a Black Lives Matter protest Thursday night by a black sniper who told police he targeted white officers.
At the interfaith service, photographs of the slain officers were displayed on the stage. Five empty seats in the arena were adorned with folded U.S. flags and duty officer hats to signify their loss.
The president, who has been criticized by law enforcement officials for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, doubled down on that theme in front of the slain officers’ colleagues and families, saying Americans “cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid.”
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“We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism,” he said. “We also know that centuries of racial discrimination, of slavery and subjugation and Jim Crow, they didn’t simply vanish with the end of lawful segregation.”
His speech drew immediate criticism on social media for taking an event that was ready-made for national unity and turning it into a lecture for his agenda items of criminal justice reform and gun control.
“Agree or disagree, the second part of Obama’s speech polarizing. Felt like a State of the Union for a moment based on who was applauding,” tweeted Josh Kraushaar, politics editor at National Journal.
Fox News commentator Katie Pavlich added: “Worst part of Obama’s lecture about racial bias today? He did it at a memorial for 5 officers who were killed because they were white.”
Many on social media ridiculed Mr. Obama for the specific claim that “we flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than it is to get his hands on a computer or even a book.”
Hypeline, a news site for millennials, commented that the average cost of a handgun is $500, the average book costs $20 and “you don’t need government-issued identification to purchase a book from your local bookstore.”
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But the White House doubled down on the claim by repeating the “we flood communities” sentence as a separate tweet.
It fell to former President George W. Bush, a resident of Dallas, to provide a less political message that focused on unifying the country out of grief. Mr. Bush said the nation is proud of the slain officers.
“Our police chief and police department have been mighty inspirations for the rest of the nation,” Mr. Bush said. “These slain officers were the best among us. They defended us even to the end [and] we will not forget what they did for us.”
Referring to racial divisions roiling the country, Mr. Bush said Americans must work at “finding our better selves.”
“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” Mr. Bush said. “At our best, we know we have one country, one future, one destiny. We recognize that we are brothers and sisters, sharing the same brief moment on earth. We do not want the unity of grief, nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope, affection and high purpose.”
Mr. Obama said the gunman, Army veteran Micah X. Johnson, committed “an act not just of demented violence, but of racial hatred.”
“It’s as if the deepest fault lines of our democracy have been exposed, perhaps even widened,” the president said. “We wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged.”
Trying to admonish some of the hard-liners in the BLM movement, Mr. Obama said race relations in America “have improved dramatically in my lifetime.” But that view was contradicted by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
“Sadly, the progress we’ve made in this country in the last quarter of a century has been minimal at best,” Mr. Reid told reporters. “The minority communities around America are afraid every day.”
The president, echoing comments by Dallas Police Chief David Brown, said society is asking police to do too much.
He used that theme to launch into a call for greater spending on domestic programs, portraying much of the ongoing tensions between minority communities and police as the result of government failing to support poor communities.
“As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools,” Mr. Obama said. “We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment.”
The president went on, “And then we tell the police, ‘You’re the social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.’ We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs, and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience. Don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when periodically … the tensions boil over.”
Addressing Black Lives Matter activists, Mr. Obama said, “Protesters, you know it — you know how dangerous some of these communities where these police officers serve are. And then you pretend as if there’s no context.”
As he flew to Dallas, Mr. Obama also called the families of two black men who were shot and killed by police last week — Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile, who was killed last week in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. The White House said he called “to offer his and the first lady’s condolences on behalf of the American people.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and an ardent supporter of Second Amendment rights, was among the lawmakers flying with the president on Air Force One, as was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. The White House said it also invited House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, but he declined.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said of Mr. Cruz accompanying the president on the flight: “At a time when our country is so divided, I think it is important that the country’s leaders are coming together across party lines despite significant political differences to emphasize a shared desire to unify the country.
“Unfortunately, it’s in moments of tragedy that this unity is revealed,” Mr. Earnest said.
The trip was the 11th time in Mr. Obama’s presidency that he has visited a community in response to gun violence. This time, the president didn’t issue a specific call for gun control, and his voice cracked with emotion at times as he spoke of grieving with too many families over the past eight years without being able to enact change out of the tragedies.
“I’m not naive,” Mr. Obama said. “I’ve hugged too many families who’ve lost a loved one to senseless violence. And I’ve seen how the spirit of unity borne of tragedy can gradually dissipate. I see how easily we slip back into our old notions. I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.”
If the U.S. is to honor the fallen officers, Mr. Obama said, police and community leaders and activists must talk about their differences openly. If they don’t, he said, “We will never break this dangerous cycle.”
“I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice,” he said. “I’m here to insist that we’re not as divided as we seem.’
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said the past few days “have been some of the darkest in our city’s history.”
“I’ve asked ‘why us?’” Mr. Rawlings said. “In my moments of self-doubt, I discovered the truth — that we did nothing wrong. Our police are among the best in the country. I’m in awe of our Dallas police officers. We set the standard where policing can both be strong and smart.”
Indeed, Dallas and Baton Rouge have been held up by federal officials as models of police departments engaging in criminal justice reform and using the latest technology tools such as body cameras to foster better relations with civilians.
The president will meet Wednesday at the White House with police officials, activists, civil rights leaders and others to revive some of the proposals from his task force on policing that proposed recommendations last year for improving relations between minority communities and law enforcement agencies.
⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.