What can be said after a complicated, painful week of violence levied against Black men and police officers? After a long and tormented week for Americans, President Obama gave a speech at the memorial service for the Dallas cops who were murdered last Thursday night.
Introduced by the Dallas police chief, surrounded by their families, fellow officers, and former President Bush, President Obama often turned to scripture for wisdom in this moment. He quoted the Book of Romans, asserting that “In our suffering, there is glory because we know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance character, and character hope.”
President Obama’s speech walked the incredibly narrow line between fully supporting the function and sacrifices of police work and also emphasizing that protestors had a right to hold American police officers accountable where evidence and a history of racial bias is present. It was a tightrope walk, indeed.
Obama’s primary focus was to get Americans to find common ground with each other by eliciting sympathy for the Dallas Police Department victims, as well as for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. He implored Americans to understand the grief on both sides—and asserted that grief for both of these situations is possible to house together.
The President asserted that “We ask too much of our police and not enough of ourselves.” He noted that cops are called on to patrol underfunded and dangerous communities and meet a plethora of needs there. He also acknowledged the roots of racism in the United States and pointed out that finding bias in police practices does not necessarily mean that someone is anti-police. He claimed that dismissals of protesters as reverse racist, or politically correct, or paranoid is wrong, especially as they point out violence and inequality 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite the failings of our nation, Obama noted that we have the opportunity to participate, and that we could improve our nation ourselves. He suggested that we must fight the cynicism and the apathy that follows events like last week and work for change in the system. I would point out that protest is certainly un-apathetic and must be a part of the change Obama is asking us to make.
While Obama asked for more interpersonal acceptance of activists, Black folks, and police, he was light on tangible solutions to truly advance a police reform agenda. Granted, at this moment, Obama was searching for common ground and common humanity to bring people together amidst last week’s tragedies. He asked Americans to open their hearts to others. Sage advice from the President; yet we know that this can be so hard for so many black Americans who have personally experienced struggles or seen their friends and family struggle with the criminal justice system. Is this kindness and sympathy important when black people are in fear of the police that are sworn to protect them?
Further, police work is not a condition of birth like blackness. It is an occupational choice that individuals select (though certainly some are primarily loyal to their paycheck and not the work itself). It is a hard job, and there is no doubt that officers are required to put their lives on the line. We can be empathetic and fully understand the difficulty of this job. Even so, public service work must be accountable as long as the state continues to arm forces to keep the peace.
Perhaps this speech can serve as a necessary reminder that the movement for black lives is not a struggle against individual people, but systemic issues that undergird and reinforce racist behaviors and outcomes in our systems. Reaching for kindness for the other side is never weak, but neither is self-care in the midst of the violence, or in the midst of pundits and politicians telling you how to feel.
Photo Credits: Reuters