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POTUS Town Hall

Divided States of America?

Obama talks race, policing and respect

Inside a Washington, D.C., theater Thursday, a video played of the moment leading up to Alton Sterling being shot to death by police last week in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His son, 15-year-old Cameron Sterling, bowed his head and when the clip ended, he pleaded with President Barack Obama, who sat less than 10 feet away.

“Keep my family safe and keep all police officers safe,” Cameron told Obama. “I ask you to unite all races of the world.”

Uniting races in a nation that often resembles the divided states of America may be mission impossible. But more than 140 people jammed into the theater for an ABC News event, The President and the People: A National Conversation, to hear Obama’s thoughts on the recent tragedies in Minnesota, Texas and Louisiana that have sparked passionate dialogue on race and law enforcement.

Everywhere Obama looked from his stool on the stage, he faced the family members of victims of tragic incidents that have made headlines.

To Cameron’s left was 12-year-old Jamar Taylor, whose mother was shot as the two of them attended the Dallas protest rally in which five police officers were killed by a sniper.

To Obama’s left sat the family of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by police in Staten Island, New York, two years ago this week.

And to Obama’s right sat family members of police officers killed in the line of duty as well as current law enforcement officers.

The event, which was held during the afternoon for broadcast Thursday evening, was described by host David Muir, the anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir, as a no-holds barred conversation with Obama. After an opening video that outlined some of the tragic police encounters between African-Americans and police — as well as the sniper shooting in Dallas that left five officers dead — Obama was asked questions by several members of the audience. ESPN’s Jemele Hill assisted in introducing some of the audience members.

“I thought the event went well,” said Toya Graham, the Baltimore woman who became nationally known after she forcibly snatched her son, Michael Singleton, from the streets during the riots that followed the death last year of Freddie Gray. “We have to start somewhere to get the conversation going. But there was still some animosity in the room.”

That animosity surfaced when an agitated Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, loudly stormed out of the theater near the end of the event when she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to address the president. As Muir read his closing remarks, Garner could be heard outside of the theater shouting expletives.

She re-entered the theater as Obama went around greeting people in the crowd, and was able to get a few moments with the president. She shared her outrage that just one supervising officer has been charged with her father’s death. None of the officers who subdued the unarmed man have been charged.

“It’s been two years, and nothing’s been done,” Garner, who later tweeted about being treated unfairly by ABC, told Obama. “It’s a shame. These officers need to be demilitarized.”

Diamond Reynolds, the woman who captured on Facebook Live video the aftermath of the police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, in Minnesota last week appeared at the event via satellite. Reynolds, who had attended Castile’s funeral earlier in the day, asked a question similar to Cameron’s: “How do we come together as a nation?”

Obama said there needs to be mutual respect between police officers and the communities where they work. “We need police, and we should all have a common ground,” Obama told Reynolds. “And we need to train officers to get rid of implicit biases. Often there is a presumption that black men are dangerous.”

Outside of the outburst from Garner, perhaps the most tense moment came when Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick addressed Obama. Patrick blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for the shooting in Dallas, and labeled its members hypocrites.

“I’m concerned that police officers across the country — do they really in their hearts feel like you’re doing all you can to protect their lives?” Patrick said, adding that he wanted Obama to refrain from condemning police involved in shootings until there was due process.

As Patrick made his point he asked Cameron, who was seated to his right, to stand with him in unison. Obama, appearing to grow furious, politely told Cameron to have a seat. He then dismissed Patrick — “and you sit down, too” — despite allowing others who asked a question at the event to remain standing during his response.

“I have been unequivocal in condemning any rhetoric concerning police officers,” Obama said. “The one thing that all of us need to do — you and me — is make sure we don’t pretend there aren’t problems in how police in some communities act.

“We have to have police who are respected. We also have to acknowledge the fear the communities feel.”

The dominant theme from Obama throughout the town hall was the need for respect and understanding. He urged police departments to learn their communities and respect its residents, while also requesting that community members give police a chance.

“We are more worried about whose fault it is, and less worried about how to fix it,” Obama said. “We have to see through other people’s eyes, and see other people’s perspectives.

“We in the African-American and Latino communities seem to feel white people have no problems,” Obama added. “If you don’t understand [they do have similar problems], you’re not going to get a receptive ear.”

At the end of the event, Obama was introduced to Jamar, the young boy whose mother was shot during the sniper attack in Dallas. Taylor told Obama that he wanted to be a police officer.

Obama smiled proudly at Taylor.

“You can do this,” Obama told him.

As Obama went through the crowd to greet people, he embraced Bradley Beal, a guard with the Washington Wizards. On Wednesday, the issue of race and community policing was prominent in the sports world when NBA stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul addressed the issue during the opening of ESPN’s annual awards show, The ESPYS. The four urged their fellow athletes to get more involved, a point that Beal echoed.

“This is a critical moment in time for us,” Beal said. “We have to use our platform more, and we have to show more connection to the communities that support us.”

The challenges of the “national conversation” and the limits of Obama’s ability to personally shape it were evident Thursday afternoon. And Graham, the Baltimore mother, thinks that’s unfair.

“He’s the president, he’s not God,” Graham said. “All of what’s happening is out of his hands.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.