Obama calls for unity at officers' memorial

After a meeting on law enforcement with senior police officials and Black Lives Matters activists, US President Barack Obama says more must be done to build trust that police violence against blacks and hispanics will be properly investigated.
Dallas Police Department Chief David Brown (at left) and Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police Chief J.D. Spiller with the First Couple during the Interfaith Tribute to Dallas Fallen Officers at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Centre on Tuesday.
Dallas Police Department Chief David Brown (at left) and Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police Chief J.D. Spiller with the First Couple during the Interfaith Tribute to Dallas Fallen Officers at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Centre on Tuesday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

DALLAS • Visiting yet another city heartbroken by a mass shooting, US President Barack Obama tried to defuse tensions that have erupted in the past week - first when black men in Louisiana and Minnesota were killed by police, then when a gunman who said he was angry about those and similar deaths opened fire on officers in Dallas.

At a memorial service for the five officers slain here on Tuesday, Mr Obama sought to unify a nation grieving and yet divided over fatal shootings involving police.

The President called for open hearts and understanding from both law enforcement and those protesting against them. He sharply criticised anyone who would paint all police as bigoted or seek violence against them. Yet he also acknowledged the fear and pain among black Americans who feel targeted and brutalised by police.

"We ask police to do too much, and we ask too little of ourselves," Mr Obama said during his remarks, which capped an emotional interfaith service just 1.6km from where the five officers died last Thursday.

The event was held in a soaring symphony hall, attended by 2,500 and marked by poignant moments. Five seats were left empty in a box to the right of the stage, each draped in black and marked by a trifolded American flag. Spouses, children and parents of those killed sat front and centre in the first rows.

On the streets of the city, officers from nearby jurisdictions patrolled to give Dallas officers, their badges still marked by black tape, a chance to attend and mourn.

Mr Obama was joined on stage by former president George W. Bush, who was making a rare public appearance since moving to Dallas after he left the White House.

Even as the President spoke of unity, however, there were palpable signs of the deep chasm he said must be bridged. Whenever Mr Obama talked about the fallen - Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarippa - the hall, filled deep with men and women in uniform, broke into applause.

But most did not clap whenever the President spoke about the Black Lives Matter protests and about the two African-Americans shot and killed last week: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

Afterwards, one officer tried to explain the silence. "The tragedy is very fresh in our minds - too fresh for some," he said. "They clapped when we were praised, but when it came to race relations, it was more of a stony silence."

For 40 minutes, Mr Obama threaded the raw emotions and festering resentments of both sides, trying to pull them closer together.

"We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other's experience," he said.

Mr Obama pleaded for each community to open its heart.

"If we cannot even talk about these things," he said, "if we cannot talk honestly and openly not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'Obama calls for unity at officers' memorial'. Print Edition | Subscribe