In Dallas, Mourner-in-Chief Obama Calls for an ‘Open Heart’

It’s not easy walking a tightrope.

Just ask a Wallenda, carrying a long pole for balance, walking over a chasm across city blocks.

Or ask President Barack Obama, walking a tight rope in his speech July 12 at an interfaith memorial service for five slain Dallas police officers.   He carried with him and tried to balance both the human lives and loss of the five white police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarippa and the lives of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, killed in police incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota last week. It seemed a crushingly delicate balance.

Obama carried with him and tried to bring and balance  the weight of hope and the burden of frustration, hope that by following the prophet Ezekiel to “open our hearts” so that that the gap between police and community and black and white could be closed,  and frustration at the idea that words might not be enough.  “I confess that, sometimes, I too experience doubt.”

“I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency,” he said. “I have seen how inadequate my own words have been.”

In fact, his speech came exactly a month after the mass shootings in an Orlando, Florida, which resulted in the death of 49 people at the hands of one shooter.  It’s also been a year since the president gave a moving speech at another memorial service, in Charleston, South Carolina, for nine black victims of a white shooter, at which he movingly sang-said, “Amazing Grace.”

It was a difficult audience for the president, and for that matter, the nation — there were five empty chairs there, for the victims, and a cavernous hall filled with Dallas police officers, who applauded many times during the speech, as the president acknowledged their selfless courage. But the audience was conspicuously silent when Obama touched on the broader issues of racism in America and mentioned the two men killed by police officers.

“We must learn to be honest with each other, black and white,” he said. He seemed to be calling for a broader debate about justice, equality and race, one that needs to be held not in the great wide communities of the country.  “Police and community members must talk with each other.”

The message was one that had already been accepted in Dallas, considered to have a police force that’s changed and made things work better than most departments in the country.

In the days before the president came to Dallas, the most visible face of the tragedy that happened last Thursday in which the sound of a gun fired with insistent, lethal force cut down police officers running toward the gunfire had been the city’s white mayor Mike Rawlings and black police chief David Brown.

In many ways, Brown has become the face of the tragedy in Dallas. He is a man of deep emotions and moral certainty.  In his life as a police officer, he has experienced just about every tragedy that violence can bring—a son who had killed a police officer and been killed himself, a brother lost to violence, a fellow officer and partner, also falling. When Brown spoke, people listened, because he spoke with the authority of feeling and experience.  “I’m running on fumes,”he had said the day before. “People ask too much of police,” he said.

The president agreed:  “We ask the police to do too much and not enough of ourselves.”

Brown had the honor of introducing the president, but the introduction came as something more like a tough act to follow.

Brown quoted a soaring Stevie Wonder ballad, “I’ll Be Loving You Always”  with amazing grace to pay tribute to his fallen comrades, as in:

“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 . . . always.

Obama smiled and with humor and his own grace said: “I’m so glad I met Michelle first. Because she loves Stevie Wonder.”

The president had arrived in Dallas on Air Force One with his wife Michelle, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, and in a show of bi-partisanship Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura were also there. Not famous for his eloquence, Bush was very eloquent indeed when he said, “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”

The speech took place less than a week after the terrible shots fired in Dallas, where Dallas police had been protecting and watching over a Black Lives Matter demonstration, with efficiency and good humor.  They protected unto death the lives of the demonstrators that night and suffered grievous losses.

Ever since, until the moments of the president’s speech and after, the world moved on as it does—there were demonstrations and clashes with police in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, and all across the country.  Two court officers were shot and killed by a convict in Michigan. There were shots fired yesterday several times in Washington, D.C. 

People debated the efficacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. Former New York Mayor Guiliani called the phrase racist.   Donald Trump, in no uncertain terms, in only days before the GOP convention, anointed himself as “the Law and Order” candidate. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton hugged and made up.  House Speaker Paul Ryan declined to come to Dallas, sticking to the more important task of keeping Hillary Clinton from receiving national security briefings.  House members refused to consider any gun legislation before going home.  A 14-year-old, black teenager was caught on video sucker-punching a white passenger on a Metro train. He was later arrested.  A Democrat National Committee staffer was killed in the District.

Obama, referencing Yeats, said, “It’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse. . . . I understand how Americans are feeling. . . . We must reject such despair.” He praised the Dallas Police Department and told the stories of the lives of the fallen. “The Dallas Police Department has been doing it the right way.”

In the end, the choirs sang, and people — all of them in the hall — held hands, swayed, gave in to the moment.

For a moment, although the world itself did not stop, it seemed the people there got to the other side, embraced the moment for the moment, if not for always.

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