DALLAS (Reuters) – President Barack Obama urged Americans on Tuesday to cast off despair over violence, to rise above racial divides and to honor five police officers slain in Dallas in a racially motivated attack by building on their call to service.
Obama’s address to a memorial service for the officers killed last Thursday also followed a series of high-profile police killings of black men in the past two years, including two last week, that have sparked the most intense debate on race and justice the country has seen since the 1960s civil rights movement.
His speech sought a careful balance between tribute to the dead police officers and respect for the country’s law enforcement, and sympathy for those protesting against police violence. Obama, the first black U.S. president, also tried to sound a note of hope for a country reeling from the violence.
He urged Americans to overcome feelings of despair and to resist polarization.
“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,” Obama said. “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. 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.”
After a week when Americans saw video images of angry crowds protesting the police killings of black men and heard the screams of Thursday’s sniper attack on police in Dallas, the memorial ended with Obama, his predecessor George W. Bush and Dallas’ police chief and mayor joining hands in a gathering that crossed racial and party lines as a choir sung a hymn.
The five Dallas officers were gunned down by military veteran Micah Johnson, who told police he was angered by police killings of black people. Johnson was killed by an explosive-laden robot sent in by police.
Obama noted that the attack in Dallas came during a protest against racial bias in policing that followed the fatal police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and outside St. Paul, Minnesota.
Racial tension remained a clear fact for Americans, he said.
“America, we know that bias remains. We know it,” Obama told the crowd of several hundred people, including many uniformed police officers, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. “None of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune. And this includes our police departments.”
But he praised the police in Dallas and around the country, saying, “We know that the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally.”
“When anyone, no matter how good their intentions may be, paints all police as biased or bigoted, we undermine those officers we depend on for our safety,” said Obama.
Bush also addressed the packed hall, where five chairs were empty of people, holding folded American flags, in memory of the slain officers. He also sought to strike a note of unity.
“At times it feels like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity,” Bush said. “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.”
Following the ceremony Obama planned to meet with the families of the slain policemen and others who were wounded. The slain officers were Mike Smith, 55; Lorne Ahrens, 48; Michael Krol, 40; Brent Thomson, 43, and Patrick Zamarripa, 32.
The death toll in Dallas was the highest for law enforcement on a single day in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Nine officers and two civilians were also wounded in the Dallas shootings.
“We cannot match the sacrifices made by Officers Zamarippa and Ahrens, Krol, Smith and Thompson, but surely we can try to match their sense of service,” Obama told the memorial service. “We cannot match their courage, but we can strive to match their devotion.”
‘MY HEART IS HEAVY’
Outside the hall, Sharice Williams, 41, who drove the roughly 95 miles (155 km) from Waco, stood in hopes of catching a glimpse of the president.
“My heart is heavy. I’m tired of seeing my brothers and sisters killed, but the police don’t deserve that,” said Williams, who is black. “I’m praying that Obama being here brings us some kind of peace.”
As he has done repeatedly after mass shootings in the past several years, Obama has reiterated a call for stricter gun control in the United States following the Dallas attack.
The Senate took up the issue after an attack on a gay nightclub last month in Orlando that killed 49 people and was the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
But senators failed to agree on any one approach. While Democrats in the House, along with some Republicans, have been clamoring for legislation, deep divisions among Republicans who control the chamber have prevented any legislation from even reaching the House floor.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas, Ayesha Rascoe, Richard Cowan and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry and Will Dunham)