President Barack Obama participated in an ABC News town hall on July 14 to discuss racism and police brutality, but many viewers discerned it as a missed opportunity, verbally expressing there wasn’t enough accentuation on the need for comprehensive police reform.
“The President and The People: A National Conversation,” an hour-long program, was hosted by “ABC World News Tonight” anchor David Muir and mitigated by ESPN’s Jemele Hill and ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts.
The goal of the conversation was to address the black community’s relationship with law enforcement following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men who were shot and killed recently by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Though, to some viewers, the discussion seemed to focus an inordinate amount on what black people can do to eschew being targeted by law enforcement, and not enough on the need to shift the culture of police and hold officers accountable for excessive force.
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter who attended the town hall, said that the event was a “shit show.” “It was honestly one of the worst experiences you could’ve put families through,” she said. “It was all about apologizing about the cops, it was just a mess. They closed it off with a little black boy wanting to be a cop. It felt like a love fest for cops. The entire show was about respectability politics.”
In all fairness, Obama did expound at one point that when people verbalize “black lives matter,” they’re NOT verbally expressing that ONLY black lives matter. He, in succession, acknowledged that black men face a “greater presumption of dangerousness” than other people, which makes their interactions with police much more fraught (albeit, of course, it’s not just black men who’ve been victims of police violence).
Teri George, the mother of a 25-year-old officer in Baltimore, asked Obama how police officers should remain safe during scenarios like the protests that rocked the city following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray last year. “He goes out in the community every day and he’s a personal police officer. He uses the words sir, ma’am. He walks the beat; he gets to know the community. But, you know, during the Freddie Gray situation, you know, he had water bottles thrown at him, he had rocks, he had a brick thrown through his window, he had glass in his eye. But he was still out there,” she said. “What’s he supposed to do to protect himself? I don’t know. It just seems like nobody was there to protect him.”
Now, one could argue that a lot of black people also don’t feel protected, at least not by an institution that routinely abuses its power in predominantly black communities like Baltimore. Obama’s response, however, was that Teri should be proud of her son. He then took it a step further by saying, “But if you look at a situation like Baltimore, there is ― and I’ve said this before ― there are not excuses for the kinds of violent activities that we see in response to anything,” Obama said. “It’s tearing down the very communities that actually need to be built up.”
There was a point during the town hall where the Milwaukee police Chief, Edward Flynn, asked Obama about how to build trust between police and the black community, as well as how to lower the crime rate in some of these areas. “Most offenders of homicide look like those they victimize. The problem is the places that need us the most, rely upon us the most, for social and historical reasons, distrust us,” Flynn said. “And when there’s a series of incidents like we have seen, we can’t protect them efficiently if we are not trusted and law enforcement are needed, as you’ve said, in those neighborhoods.”
“The challenge is,” he continued, “how do we talk about both things at the same time without acting like we’re blaming the African-American community for their victimization or assuming that all police are biased?”
In relation to what President Obama responded with, few black people would disaccord that crimes in black communities is an issue (even if “black-on-black crime” is one of the most mundane verbalizing points of racists endeavoring to deflect attention from the issue of police violence). In Chicago and other cities, local activists work against this ill just as vigorously as they work to contravene police violence. But to bring it up during this town hall, in replication to this particular question, turned the conversation away from police brutality and the desideratum for reform. And inadvertently or not, it seemed to frame ebony folks as the quandary.
Obama stated that numerous black communities need investments such as schools, after-school programs and gun control. “This is tough. I have presided over more memorials of mass shootings than I would like ― and it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “But that doesn’t even count the hundreds of kids just in the South Side of Chicago who have been shot.”
When 19-year-old Clifton Kinney, a Black Lives Matter organizer from Ferguson, Missouri, took the microphone, he questioned Obama about keeping black communities safe.
“What do you envision safety looks akin to for poor black and brown communities? As we understand, it is more extravagant than policing. And what can you do as you are about to exit office and finish your final term in office?” Kinney asked. “What can you do to ascertain that their vision has substructure for more progress?” Obama complimented Kinney on his question, and then commenced placing what seemed akin to an undue amount of responsibility on the community.
“We expect police to solve a gamut of societal quandaries that we ourselves have neglected. I mentioned this in my remarks at the memorial in Dallas, but we have communities without jobs, with substandard schools, where the drug trade is so often considered the only way to make money,” he verbalized. “Communities that are inundated with guns, where there’s a lack of noetic health accommodations or drug treatment accommodations. And then we verbally express to the police, go deal with that. Debar it from optical discernment, debar it from mind.”
Obama perpetuated: “If we put the police in those arduous situations and something transpires, understandably, the police feel as if they are being assailed because we haven’t provided them a situation in which it’s more facile for them to do their jobs.”