Obama Calls for "Open Hearts" After Shootings

Obama Calls for "Open Hearts" After Shootings
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President Obama appealed to Americans to open their hearts to what he called “truths” about America’s racial divisions and hatreds during a memorial service Tuesday honoring five police officers gunned down in Dallas last week.

Obama returned to a favorite theme – that as America’s first black president, he is proof that Americans are inclusive, generous and introspective enough to acknowledge wrongs and work hard to fix them.

“I don't know,” the president said during an emotional memorial program that included a soaring choir and remarks from President George W. Bush, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the mayor of Dallas, and the celebrated police chief who said his department will not retreat from the “love” of the Dallas community.

“I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt. I've been to too many of these things. I've seen too many families go through this,” Obama said before meeting privately with the families of the five victims. Vice President Joe Biden, Jill Biden and the first lady accompanied the president.

“But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. `I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, `and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh,’” Obama continued. “That's what we must pray for, each of us: A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens." 

To promote healing and mutual understanding, the president tried to reach out to multiple audiences – the grieving as well as the aggrieved – during the course of 39 minutes. He spoke about the five murdered police officers as “heroes,” and commended the people of Dallas and city leaders, including Police Chief David Brown, who is black, and Mayor Mike Rawlings, who is white, for working together to lead their community out of a tragedy.

Obama three times mentioned by name the two black men killed by police last week during separate shooting incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, captured on video and seen by millions online, sparked protest demonstrations Thursday in Dallas. During the otherwise peaceful march, an African-American Army veteran killed and injured police after targeting them. The president did not mention the alleged sniper, 25-year-old Micah Johnson, whom Dallas police killed with a bomb. 

The president defended Black Lives Matter and other protesters and minorities who believe, based on experience, video evidence and data, that too many police around the country continue to treat citizens differently based on the color of their skin while resorting to deadly force when it’s unnecessary.

Last year, the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a report full of recommendations for training, best practices, the use of technology, and changes in community relations. “The law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian—rather than a warrior—mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public,” the task force of experts concluded.

The events of the last week suggest trend lines are going in the wrong direction, a fact documented by deadly force statistics and videos. Police have killed more than 500 people this year. The use of deadly force by police is especially alarming to African-Americans, according to Gallup surveys conducted over many years, because they believe they are more often the targets of police attention. Since 2015, data indicate that police shootings killed as many white victims as minority victims.

“When all this takes place, more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid,” Obama said.

“We can't simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members, again and again and again, it hurts,” he added. “Surely we can see that, all of us.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the president will host another in a series of gatherings of law enforcement advocates, officials, experts and civil rights advocates in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. Obama wants to “push the conversation in the direction of concrete actions and solutions, and that’s hard,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

The White House described the event as “a conversation about ways we can keep people safe, build community trust, and ensure justice for all Americans.” Release of a complete list of attendees was not expected before Wednesday.

Nineteen years ago, President Bill Clinton attempted something similar with his White House Race Initiative, which roped in education, jobs, policing, crime, civil rights, and poverty as parts of its sprawling mandate. Clinton’s 1997 effort was widely panned as mostly talk by stakeholders who could not agree on deliverables. Clinton hotly rejected suggestions the effort was poorly conceived.

“I believe talking is better than fighting,” Clinton said at the time. “And I believe when people don't talk and communicate and understand, their fears, their ignorance, and their problems are more likely to fester. Keep in mind, this is the first time ever that our country has tried to deal with its racial divergence in the absence of a crisis.” 

Obama has been reluctant to suggest that racial disparities in the criminal justice system – a particular focus of his administration in his second term – are a national crisis. But he has described the prevalence of guns and easy access to assault weapons as an emergency that Congress should address by adopting expanded gun background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and restrictions on high-capacity ammunition. In poll after poll, Americans by large majorities say they support those changes.

The National Rifle Association and conservatives in Congress have criticized Obama for his efforts to spotlight racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and they condemn his focus on enacting gun legislation, arguing it is a partisan wedge issue wielded by Democrats in an election year. Since the mass shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut more than three years ago, the administration and Democratic lawmakers have tried and failed to pass federal gun restrictions.

During his Dallas speech, Obama returned to the issue by pointing out policy and budgetary choices Americans and their leaders sidestep -- choices with repercussions nationwide.

“We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book,” the president said, his voice booming.

Obama’s rhetorical arguments nearing the end of his presidency are unlikely to produce new policing policies in 2016, but police shootings, the targeting of law enforcement, and the Black Lives Matter protests all became part of the Democratic primary contest and are fault lines between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the general election contest.

Hours before Obama called for unity and open hearts (and flew to Texas with one of his harshest critics, former presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, aboard Air Force One), Hillary Clinton and her one-time primary adversary, Bernie Sanders, campaigned together for the first time Tuesday in New Hampshire. While they buried the Democratic hatchet in Portsmouth, the pair turned their combined weaponry against Trump and reminded supporters that heavy GOP firepower was aimed at Clinton.

Obama’s prediction that comity and communion might be temporary after the shock of the carnage in Dallas and elsewhere seemed accurate. Political rifts did not take a holiday.

“Republicans are preparing to put the full force of their party toward one goal: attacking our team,” Clinton warned Tuesday in an email to supporters seeking campaign contributions for what is widely expected to be one of the most expensive and negative presidential contests in modern history.

Trump was at it, too, on Twitter: “This election is a choice between law, order & safety - or chaos, crime & violence. I will make America safe again for everyone,” he wrote. “Crooked Hillary.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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