Obama salutes officers, but focuses on cause of Black Lives Matter protests

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Former president George W. Bush (L) First Lady Michelle Obama (2nd L) U.S. President Barack Obama and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (R) sing during a memorial service following the multiple police shootings in Dallas, Texas, U.S., July 12, 2016. | REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

DALLAS (Christian Examiner) – President Barack Obama said during a memorial service July 12 that five police officers killed by a gunman at a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas are "heroes" who rushed into the breach to protect the very people protesting against them.

Dallas Officers Patrick Zamarippa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, and Michael Smith, along with Dallas Area Rapid Transit Officer Brent Thompson, were killed July 7 as the rally they were watching over was ending. As the group moved through Belo Garden in Dallas, shots rang out from an elevated position.

In addition to the five officers killed – one as he engaged the gunman at point blank range – eight other officers and one civilian were wounded.

The gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, revealed during negotiations with police that he wanted to kill white people and, in particular, white police officers, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said on the evening of the shootings. Johnson was later killed with an explosive charge carried in by a SWAT robot.

Your loss is unfair. We cannot explain it. We can stand beside you and share your grief. And we can pray that God will comfort you with a hope deeper than sorrow and stronger than death.

Speaking of the fallen officers, President Obama said they, like officers and their families all over the country, shared "a commitment to something larger than themselves."

"They weren't looking for their names to be up in lights. They'd tell you the pay was decent, but wouldn't make you rich. They could have told you about the stress and long shifts. And they'd probably agree with Chief Brown when he said that cops don't expect to hear the words 'thank you' very often, especially from those who need them the most," Obama said.

"No. The reward comes in knowing that our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law, that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labor, that in this country we don't have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules."

"Instead, we have public servants, police officers, like the men who were taken away from us. And that's what these five were doing last Thursday when they were assigned to protect and keep orderly a peaceful protest," the president said.

However, in addition to his focus on the officers, Obama also said Americans should try to understand what motivates the protest the police were protecting.

Obama named each of the slain officers twice in his speech, less than the number of times he mentioned two black men (Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota) that prompted the demonstration in Dallas. Investigations into the shootings of those men are currently underway, but both were apparently armed. Castile had a permit to carry a weapon. His girlfriend said he was reaching for his wallet when he was shot.

Obama repeatedly addressed the racial tension percolating in America in his address and wondered, in the face of violence, if "the divides of race in America can ever be bridged."

"We turn on the TV or surf the internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout. We see all this, and it's hard not to think sometimes that the center won't hold and that things might get worse," Obama said.

He then encouraged the audience to reject the feelings of hopelessness and despair.

"I'm here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem. And I know that because I know America. I know how far we've come against impossible odds," he said.

Still, Obama said during the address that all Americans are guilty of some form of bias and American institutions are still not immune, "and that includes our police departments." He then hit at the criminal justice system, which he said treats blacks unfairly with longer sentences and a disproportionate number of death penalty sentences.

But for those who malign all police officers as being biased or bigoted, the president said doing so "undermines those officers that we depend on for safety."

"And as for those who use rhetoric suggesting harm to police, even if they don't act on it themselves, well, they not only make the jobs of police officers even more dangerous, but they do a disservice to the very cause of justice they claim to promote," Obama said.

Significantly less political at the memorial service was former President George W. Bush, who focused his address on the officers and spoke directly to the family members of the fallen. Bush, who spoke for seven minutes, said he and his wife, Laura, have called Dallas home in the past and now. He said they had experienced "five deaths in the family."

"Their courage is our protection and shield," Bush said. "Every officer has accepted a calling which sets them apart. Most of us imagine that at a moment called for that we would risk our lives to protect a spouse or a child. Those wearing a uniform assume that risk for the safety of strangers."

Bush said police officers and their families share the knowledge that each day brings new dangers and yet the officers still put on the badge and go out the door to work. Few could have imagined or prepared for an ambush like the one carried out by the gunman July 7, he said. He called it an "act of hatred and malice."

"The shock of this evil still has not faded," Bush said.

"At times it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces holding us together. Argument turns to animosity. Disagreement turns too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. This has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose."

Bush said the way Americans can overcome the division they face is by remembering the values that unite the people. He said Americans have never been held together solely because of a shared background or lineage. Instead, he said, "we are held together by the things of the spirit, by shared commitments to common ideals."

"At our best we honor the image of God we see in one another. We recognize that we are brothers and sisters sharing the same brief moment on earth, and owing each other the loyalty of our shared humanity. At our best, we know have one country, one future, one destiny. 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," he said.

Bush spoke directly to the families of the fallen officers, who were represented at the ceremony by five empty chairs, draped in black cloth and each holding a folded American flag.

"Your loss is unfair. We cannot explain it. We can stand beside you and share your grief. And we can pray that God will comfort you with a hope deeper than sorrow and stronger than death," Bush told the families.