WASHINGTON ― President Barack Obama participated in an ABC News town hall on Thursday to discuss racism and police brutality, but many viewers saw it as a missed opportunity, saying there wasn’t nearly enough emphasis 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 moderated 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 police following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men who were shot and killed by police last week in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively.
But to some viewers, the discussion seemed to focus too much on what black people can do to avoid being targeted by law enforcement, and not enough on the need to shift police culture and hold officers accountable for excessive force.
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter who attended the town hall, told The Huffington Post 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 fairness, Obama did explain at one point that when people say “black lives matter,” they’re not saying that only black lives matter. He also acknowledged that black men face a “greater presumption of dangerousness” than other people, which makes their interactions with police much more fraught (although, of course, it’s not just black men who’ve been victims of police violence).
But a few of the president’s remarks stood out as slightly tone-deaf and out of line with the event’s billing.
Teri George, the mother of a 25-year-old officer in Baltimore, asked Obama how police officers should remain safe during situations 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 George should be proud of her son ― which, obviously, is true. Then, he took it a step further.
“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.”
The president told viewers about a White House staffer whose mother lives in an area of Baltimore where most of the protests took place.
“She’s elderly. She had a CVS, I think it was, which was right down the street where she could fill her prescriptions. When that gets torn up, now suddenly she’s got to figure out how to fill her prescriptions two miles or three miles or five miles away,” Obama said. “So it’s counterproductive. And for good police officers who are genuinely taking the time to get to know the community, the community has to stand up for them and speak out on their behalf and recognize they are partners in this process.”
It’s not clear whether he meant it to come across this way, but by talking about a burning CVS during a conversation ostensibly about the importance of black life in America, Obama seemed to be suggesting that the destruction of property is at least as big a problem as the killing of an unarmed black man. This happens all the time when angry and frustrated black protesters take to the streets and rally against the violence inflicted upon them by police ― violence for which the officers involved often face no consequences. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pulled a similar move when she mourned the loss of the drugstore during the height of the unrest instead of assuaging the pain of a wounded community.
Obama did, however, slightly contextualize the anguish of the community before pivoting back to the refrain of how cops’ lives matter just as much as everyone else’s. (Again: Yes, that is obviously true.)
“One of the problems we end up having, though, is if in communities like Baltimore, all of these tensions have built up for so long,” Obama said. When there are “too many unemployed folks, too many drugs on the streets, too many guns, too many idle hands, then sometimes what happens with an event like Freddie Gray, it becomes the catalyst for all the other stuff that may not even have to do with policing coming out.”
“That’s why it’s so important for us to do everything we can to create healthy communities,” he continued. “That will make life easier for your son.”
At one point, Milwaukee police Chief Edward Flynn asked Obama about how to build trust between police and the black community and how to lower the crime rate in some of these areas.
“Most [homicide] offenders look like those that they victimize. The dilemma is the places that need us the most, depend upon us the most, for social [and] historical reasons distrust us,” Flynn said. “And when there’s a series of incidents like we’ve seen, we can’t protect them effectively if we’re not trusted and the police 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?”
This is where things got ugly and annoying.
“Let me just pick up on a couple of themes that you said,” Obama replied. “Number one, it is absolutely true that the murder rate in the African-American community is way out of whack compared to the general population, and both the victims and the perpetrators are black. Young black men ― the single greatest cause of death for young black men between the ages of 18 and 35 is homicide, and that’s crazy. That is crazy. And so we have to acknowledge that, and that means that we can’t put the burden on the police alone.”
That’s very true. Few black people would disagree that crime in black communities is a problem (even if “black-on-black crime” is one of the most common talking points of racists trying to deflect attention from the issue of police violence). In Chicago and other cities, local activists work against this ill just as strongly as they work to counter police violence. But to bring it up during this town hall, in response to this particular question, turned the conversation away from police brutality and the need for reform. And inadvertently or not, it seemed to frame black folks as the problem.
Obama noted that many 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 Kinnie, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Ferguson, Missouri, took the mic, he asked Obama about keeping black communities safe.
“What do you envision safety looks like for poor black and brown communities? As we understand, it is more expansive than policing. And what can you do as you are about to exit office?” Kinnie asked. “What can you do to ensure that their vision has groundwork for more progress?”
Obama complimented Kinnie on his question, and then began placing what seemed like an undue amount of responsibility on the community.
“We expect police to solve a whole range of societal problems that we ourselves have neglected. So ― and I mentioned this in my remarks at the memorial in Dallas ― we have communities without jobs, with substandard schools, where the drug trade is so often considered the only way to make money,” he said. “Communities that are inundated with guns, where there’s a lack of mental health services or drug treatment services. And then we say to the police, go deal with that. Keep it out of sight, keep it out of mind.”
Obama continued: “If we put the police in those difficult situations and something happens, understandably, the police feel as if they are being attacked because we haven’t provided them a situation in which it’s easier for them to do their jobs.”
Many of the “societal problems” Obama mentioned could be addressed with public policy: failing schools, unemployment, gun violence, lack of resources. So he may have meant this as a rebuke to Congress or to other lawmakers and authorities who’ve allowed these issues to metastasize. But again, to many viewers, it came across as Obama pointing the finger at impoverished communities and saying, “You’re making things worse for yourselves.”
And as Kevin Rector, a reporter with The Baltimore Sun, noted on Twitter, Obama missed another important point throughout the town hall, one that he’d nailed just days before in his Dallas eulogy ― namely, how often black people are targeted by the criminal justice system.
It’s understandable that the community has to work with police, but a nuanced discussion on why black people don’t trust the police in the first place was missing ― as Cullors pointed out.
“A true town hall would’ve been bringing black people to have a tough conversation about what policies, what legislation ― what are we going to put in place in order to save black lives,” she told HuffPost. “This was a bunch of fluff.”
Erica Garner, whose father, Eric, died in 2014 after being placed in a chokehold by an NYPD officer, accused ABC of using black suffering to get ratings.
Garner ultimately walked out of the event on Thursday, saying that network producers broke a promise to highlight her questions for the president. (ABC responded in a statement.)
Cullors, like Garner, expressed disappointment about the way the night went.
“I’m upset with ABC and how they handled it,” she said. “They curated a town hall that forced black people to be re-traumatized, and didn’t allow for real constructive conversation about what we’re going to do about race issues in this country.”
Marina Fang and Lilly Workneh contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Clifton Kinnie’s last name as Kinney. It also mischaracterized his description of safety for black and brown communities. He said it was more expansive than policing, not more expensive.