An emotional gathering draws hope, talk of change after president’s town hall
The hourlong meeting answered key questions from shooting victims’ grieving loved ones
After President Barack Obama wrapped up the last question in his town hall meeting this evening, he spent time meeting with the loved ones of victims who were lost due to gun violence in America. He offered words of encouragement to Cameron Sterling, the 15-year-old son of Alton Sterling, the 37-year-old man who was shot and killed by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last week. He took time to listen to Oliver Smith, a Maryland man who toted a picture of his son, Oliver Smith Jr., a police officer who was killed in 1997 during a botched robbery.
After the President’s departure, many attendees stayed and spoke to each other in a family reunion-style gathering. Embraces were given, stories of victims were exchanged and tears were shed. Although many family members were still stricken with profound grief, it seemed that this may have been the beginning of a healing process.
“I think this president understands he has to be a uniter, and I think he understands that while there is a divide, it can get better if we talk and if we realize that we need to be capable of seeing each other’s viewpoints,” said lawyer and ABC senior legal correspondent & analyst for Sunny Hostin.” I think that came across really well. I think he’s a deliberate speaker, he’s a brilliant speaker, he’s a gifted speaker, but he certainly made it clear that while the police have a very difficult job and we ask them to do too much. There is a real disparity in a way that African-American men and Latino men are treated by police officers, and we need to have that simultaneous conversation without placing blame, but finding solutions. That was the biggest takeaway for me.”
For an hour, Obama answered questions from a mixed crowd of attendees, including loved ones of recent victims of police shootings. Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, attended the town hall via video messaging. Hours after attending the funeral of Castile, the cafeteria supervisor who was killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, last week, Reynolds spoke directly to the president through tears.
“When I think about my daughter’s future, I’m scared for her,” Reynolds said. “What do we do to stop this from continuing to happen? How do we come together as a nation?”
It’s one question Ohio police officer Nakia Jones asks herself, as well. Jones, whose video expressing outrage after Sterling’s shooting death went viral, was moved to tears after recalling a conversation she had with her son, who wondered if he would be the next black man to die at the hands of a police officer.
“My son came home and showed me [the Alton Sterling] video. I’m listening to him and I’m watching it over and over again and I could see my son laying there,” Jones said. “I saw Sterling there, but I could see my son’s face and his body there.”
In the video, Jones expressed her frustrations about another black life being taken by a police officer. Credible news sites, including NBC, picked up the video. Days later, the video has been viewed 25,000 times.
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“It’s rough wearing both hats,” Jones said. “I’m a police officer, but I have two African-American sons. For my son to say, ‘Ma, does this mean an officer is going to shoot me?’ That shook me because these are my brothers and sisters in blue, but also wearing the uniform, I know we have a split second to make a decision. Sometimes, people don’t understand that. We can’t redo it if we do something wrong, especially taking a life. Today was just so emotional for me. I felt like I was split in half. I shouldn’t have to choose between being a police officer or African-American. We gotta bridge this gap. We have to, because it’s tearing us apart.”
Smith also remained behind, still clinging tightly to the picture of his son. He cracked a smile. “He got all his good looks from his mom. He didn’t get them from me.”
According to Smith, his son stopped to use an ATM machine when three men followed him home and discovered his badge. While attempting to rob him, the criminals realized he was a police officer.
“They shot him in the head three times on his doorstep,” Smith said. “They explained in court that they did it because they needed the money — they each got $20.”
After Smith shared his fondest memories of his son, attendee and country singer Coffey Anderson broke out his guitar. Two little girls gathered around him as he struck his chords.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray,” they jovially sang together. After asking how Smith felt about Obama’s messages, he turned and looked briefly at the girls before answering.
“There’s some hope,” he said. “There’s some hope that some dialogue will be generated and maybe there will be some changes. We have a ways to go. It’s only until people are willing to understand why people do what they do on both sides.”