By Ryan Hammill 7-12-2016

President Obama delivered a lengthy address in Dallas in honor of the five police officers who died in the shooting that occurred in the city last week.

He was joined onstage at the memorial service by President George W. Bush, a resident of Dallas.

“Today the nation grieves,” Bush said, in his relatively short and mostly apolitical speech. “But those of us who love Dallas and call it home have had five deaths in the family.”

The memorial service served as a time to honor the slain officers, but also as a time for reckoning with the United States’ racial divisions. A number of dignitaries addressed the crowd gathered in the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, but none of them — not even Obama — received as much applause and cheering as Dallas Police Chief David Brown.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was effusive in his praise for Brown as well.

“A man that I call a friend,” Rawlings said in his introduction, “but more importantly, he is my rock. He represents not only Dallas, but police officers, police chiefs, this higher calling across the United States of America.”

At a café in Dallas where patrons watched the service on television, Jeff Mosier of the The Dallas Morning News said that diners, with whom Obama’s speech seemed to resonate, were most appreciative when Obama noted that the Dallas Police Department, under Brown’s leadership, had been policing the “right way,” with an emphasis on community outreach.

When he took the stage, Chief Brown opened his own remarks by talking about his teenage years.

“When I was a teenager and started liking girls, I could never find the right words to express myself and after a couple of words they’d just walk away leaving me to figure out what I needed to do to get a date,” he said to laughter. So Brown said that he would memorize lyrics from R&B songs and just recite them to the girls that he liked. For people he really liked, he said, he always chose Stevie Wonder.

Then, Brown recited lines from Wonder’s song “As,” in tribute to the five officers and their families.

“We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles
can make you wish you were born in another time and space
…Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children's grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell
I'll be loving you”

When Obama went up to the microphone, he took a friendly jab at Brown. “I’m so glad I met Michelle first because she loves Stevie Wonder,” he said. “Watch it!”

Obama walked a fine line throughout his address, memorializing the officers by name, mentioning their families, and describing their lives and their sacrifice. But he also expanded into longer discussions of policing and race relations.

“The deepest fault lines of our democracy have been exposed, and perhaps widened,” Obama said. “We wonder if racial divides can ever be bridged.” The president admitted that he wasn’t always sure.

“I confess that sometimes I too experience doubt.” But he pointed to the gains that have been made in the recent past.

“Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime,” he said, an echo of a speech he gave in May at Howard University. “Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress.” But Obama made no attempt to sugarcoat the difficulties faced by blacks in the U.S., as uncomfortable as that may have been for some listening.

“America, we know that bias remains,” he said. “We know it.” It was a phrase that served as a refrain in his speech, though it’s likely some disagreed.

According to reports, Obama wrote most of the speech himself, and stayed up late last night with the Bible, working on the address.

The biblical overtones of the speech were obvious. References to Paul’s words Romans 5:3-4 served to bookend his remarks:

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Obama did not just in dwell in the world of hope, however. Speaking about racial bias, he implicated everyone.

“None of us is entirely innocent,” he said. “No institution is entirely immune, and that includes our police departments.” He warned that “we cannot simply dismiss” the complaints of the Black Lives Matter movement as “political correctness” or “reverse racism.” Obama also mentioned Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by name multiple times, whose families he had spoken to by phone before the memorial service.

But Obama was careful to lay out the difficulties that police officers faced, and their courage to go on facing them. In addition, he spoke about the unreasonable demands placed upon police departments when communities don’t invest in education, mental health, and drug treatment programs, and when communities are flooded with guns, a message Chief Brown has made clear.

“We tell them to keep these communities in check at all costs and then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over,” Obama said. The president also had words of admonishment for those who protest against police violence.

“Guard against reckless language,” he said, urging them to acknowledge the progress that has already been made, and to be committed to negotiation and reconciliation. Protesters’ words of scorn for police officers in general do a “disservice to the very cause of justice they claim to promote,” Obama said.

But that cause of justice is a valid one, he said.

“Even for those who dislike the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ — surely we should be able to hear the pain of Alton Sterling’s family.” But ultimately, Obama was once again the comforter-in-chief.

“We know there is evil in this world,” he said, in conclusion. “That’s why we need police departments. But as Americans we can decide that people like this killer will ultimately fail.” 

After he finished, a joint interfaith and Dallas Police Department choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the entire congregation of those gathered held hands, something President Bush seemed to enjoy most. While Obama’s remarks on race and policing were particularly profound, drawing frequent applause, it may have been President Bush’s closing words that were most moving, as he addressed the families of the slain officers.

“Your loss is unfair. We cannot explain it,” he said. “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.”

Ryan Hammill is a former Online Assistant for Sojourners. Follow him @ryanahammill.

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