October 27, 2016

Obama in call to Americans to reject despair

Former president George W. Bush, left, First Lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama and Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings at the Dallas memorial service

President Barack Obama has urged Americans to reject despair in the wake of the latest mass shooting in the US as he eulogised the five police officers killed by a gunman in Dallas last week.

“I am here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem,” he said to a packed auditorium in the Texas city. “I say that because I know America — I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.”

The speech came just over a year after Mr Obama delivered a eulogy for nine black churchgoers gunned down by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, and carried echoes of its message of racial healing. In Dallas, a black gunman killed five police officers and wounded seven others last Thursday after a peaceful multiracial protest against the recent killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. The gunman told police that he wanted to kill white officers in retaliation for those shootings and others.

“Faced with this violence we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged,” said Mr Obama. “We see all these things and it’s hard not to think the centre won’t hold and that things might get worse. But Dallas I am here to say that we must reject such despair.”

It was just the latest time that Mr Obama, the country’s first black president, has found himself attempting to heal a nation still dealing with its ugly racial history and reconciling the fraught relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement. It was at least the 15th time in his eight years in office that he has spoken at length in the wake of a mass killing.

He said he had “seen how inadequate my own words have been”, but urged the country to confront “uncomfortable” truths: that the vast majority of police do their job well but that centuries of racial discrimination, slavery, subjugation and Jim Crow “didn’t simply vanish” after the civil rights advances of the 1960s. He referenced statistics that show how much more likely African-Americans are to be stopped, searched and arrested, while mourning the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota at the hands of police.

He praised the heroism of Dallas officers who “saved more lives than we will ever know” and called the shooting an “act not just of demented violence but of racial hatred”.

“All of it has left us wounded and angry and hurt — it’s as if the deepest faultlines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened, and though we know such divisions are not new — that offers us little comfort,” he said.

He said he too sometimes experienced doubt about the nation’s ability to heal: “I’ve been to too many of these things. I’ve seen too many families go through this.”

Mr Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, who has largely stayed out of the spotlight since leaving office in 2009, also spoke at the service. Mr Bush served as governor of Texas, and moved to Dallas after his presidency.

The memorial service came as the Dallas shooting and a spate of police killings of black men have taken centre stage in the race to succeed Mr Obama. On Monday, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump called himself the “law and order candidate”, echoing language used by President Richard Nixon and segregationist George Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1968, another year of racial and civil strife.

He took to his Twitter account on Tuesday to argue that “election is a choice between law, order & safety — or chaos, crime & violence”, and to warn that “crime is out of control and rapidly getting worse”.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said the country should address systemic racism in law enforcement while calling for respect for police officers and gun control.

“Let’s take real, meaningful action to end the epidemic of gun violence in America,” she said at a rally in New Hampshire where former rival Bernie Sanders endorsed her.

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