Obama Says 'We Are Not as Divided as We Seem' at Dallas Memorial for Slain Officers

The president made the comments during a multifaith gathering Tuesday.

ByABC News
July 12, 2016, 2:38 PM

— -- President Barack Obama, speaking in Dallas this afternoon to a community — and a nation — reeling from last week's deadly sniper attack, said Americans must reject despair during these tough times.

"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," he said at a multi-faith memorial at the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center. "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. I understand. I understand how Americans are feeling. But, Dallas, I'm here to say we must reject such despair."

Obama, who cut short a trip to Europe to be at the memorial, continued, "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. I know we'll make it because of what I've experienced in my own life. What I've seen of this country and its people, their goodness and decency, as president of the United States."

He said, "This is the America I know," citing how protesters and police officers are mourning side by side, grieving for the five officers slain in Dallas as well as the two black men recently killed by police — Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.

"In this audience I see what's possible," Obama said. "I see what's possible when we recognize that we are one American family. All deserving of equal treatment. All deserving equal respect. All children of God. That's the America I know."

He continued that often with memorials — having spoken at too many during his presidency and hugging "too many families" — the spirit for change falls to daily life, and words are inadequate.

"Because they're comfortable," he said. "We're used to them. I've seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I've seen how inadequate my own words have been."

He criticized the instinct to dismiss people's experiences and their pain over needing to instruct their children how to respond to police officers so they don't get shot.

"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 protests as troublemakers or paranoid," he said. "You 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 co-workers and fellow church members, again and again and again? It hurts. Surely, we can see that. All of us."

The president also criticized how much society asks police officers to do in the current system, echoing the remarks earlier this week of Dallas Police Chief David Brown.

"So much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves," he said. "As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs."

While Obama took on the division and tensions of race in America, he called on unity in the country to address those issues.

"Because the vicious killer of these police officers — it won't be the last person who tries to make us turn on one another. The killer in Orlando wasn't. Nor was the killer in Charleston. We know there is evil in this world. That's why we need police departments," he said. "But as Americans, we can decide that people like this killer will ultimately fail. They will not drive us apart. We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share."

Obama began his remarks with scripture, returning to it throughout his remarks. To Obama's side, five chairs remained empty except for a folded American flag on each one as a tribute to the fallen officers.

"Scripture tells us that in our sufferings, there is glory. Because we know that suffering produces perseverance. Perseverance, character. And character, hope. Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see," Obama said. "Right now those words test us. Because the people of Dallas, people across the country are suffering."

He spent time speaking about the fallen officers and details from their lives, including Lorne Ahrens, who "the night before he died, he bought dinner for a homeless man," Obama said, adding that Ahrens' two children still don't understand what happened.

"These men and their families 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," Obama said. "They could have told you about the stress and long shifts. They 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. 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."

    The president worked late into the night consulting Scripture to write his remarks, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One traveling to Dallas.

    Obama stressed the way forward is unity — a theme throughout his speech and the entire service.

    "Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down. It is found by lifting others up. And that's what I take away from the lives of these outstanding men," he said. "The pain we feel may not soon pass. But my faith tells me that they did not die in vain. I believe our sorrow can make us a better country. I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace."

    Former President George W. Bush spoke before Obama.

    "These slain officers were the best among us," Bush said at the memorial before naming the officers and providing some details about each one. "Most of us imagine that if the moment called for it, we would risk our lives to protect a spouse or a child. Those wearing the uniform assume that risk for the safety of strangers."

    Bush said that often "we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions" and spoke of the need for unity and tolerance.

    "This is the bridge across our nation's deepest divisions. And it is not merely a matter of tolerance but of learning from the struggles and stories of our fellow citizens and finding our better selves in the process," he said. "At our best, we know we 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."

    "To wage this battle against violence and separatism, today must be about unity," Dallas Mayor Michael S. Rawlings said at the start of the service. "Unity among faiths, unity among police and citizens and, yes, unity among politicians. In recent days I've seen unity, even before that tragedy, when police and protesters mingled peacefully."

    He spoke of bringing together the interfaith choir and the former president and the current one to speak at the memorial.

    For more than an hour after today's service, the President and First Lady visited with the families of the officers who were killed and many of those who were wounded, including law enforcement officers from Dallas Police Department, Dallas Area Rapid Transit and El Centro College. The Vice President and Dr. Biden and President George W. Bush and Mrs. Bush participated as well.

    This is the 11th time Obama has traveled to a community in the wake of a mass shooting. His visit comes as racial tension across the country mounts as the number of black men killed by police continues to grow.

    Obama was joined on Air Force One — which touched down at Dallas Love Field at 12:15 p.m. local time — by Ted Cruz, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Marc Veasey and Eddie Bernice Johnson. Veasey and Johnson, both Democrats, are from districts in the Dallas area.

    Cruz, R-Texas, a forceful critic of Obama, was aboard the plane at the president's invitation —- a sign of setting partisanship aside during a time of tragedy. Just last month, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., did the same when he traveled with Obama to Orlando to pay respects to those killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting.

    Obama invited House Speaker Paul Ryan to fly on Air Force One to attend the service, but the Republican leader was unable to attend, his spokeswoman AshLee Strong said.