The following is the text of President Obama’s remarks at the funeral of the slain Dallas police officers in 2016. It has sometimes been remarked on as an example of Obama being a divisive figure who inflames racial tensions. I’m genuinely trying to understand this sentiment, and have not been able to.
I’ve marked up the text of the speech below, with green text highlighting rhetoric that is specifically, explicitly praising police, rule of law, and social order. Red text indicates what I think, to my best guess, could be construed as divisive, overly political, or inappropriate to the setting.
To my conservative friends, I’d ask you to read the red text and ask the following questions:
- is it true?
- is it stretching the truth?
- if it is true, is it in our national interest to ignore?
- is it hurtful to families of the slain, given the soaring words of praise directed at them specifically by name?
- if it is, does that hurt outweigh the benefit of a President acknowledging part of the citizenry’s concerns, however legitimate or illigitimate you may find them?
For the record, I personally agree with everything said here and think it’s a balanced and beautiful rhetorical expression of how what unites us can be greater than what divides us. And while I grant that such rhetoric can be empty, this is a perfect case of when it is not.
OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Mr. President and Mrs. Bush, my friend the vice president, and Dr. Biden, Mayor Rawlings, Chief Stiller, clergy, members of Congress, Chief Brown. I’m so glad I met Michelle first, because she loves Stevie Wonder. Thank you. But most of all, the families and friends and colleagues and fellow officers. Scripture tells us that in our sufferings, there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see. Right now, those words test us because the people of Dallas, people across the country are suffering. We’re here to honor the memory and mourn the loss of five fellow Americans, to grieve with their loved ones, to support this community, and pray for the wounded, and to try and find some meaning amidst our sorrow. For the men and women who protect and serve the people of Dallas, last Thursday began like any other day. Like most Americans, each day you get up, probably have too quick a breakfast, kiss your family goodbye, and you head to work. But your work and the work of police officers across the country is like no other. For the moment you put on that uniform, you have answered a call that at any moment, even in the briefest interaction, may put your life in harm’s way.
OBAMA: Lorne Ahrens, he answered that call. So did his wife, Katrina, not only because she was the spouse of a police officer, but because she’s a detective on the force. They have two kids. Lorne took them fishing. And he used to proudly go to their school in uniform. On the night before he died, he bought dinner for a homeless man. And the next night, Katrina had to tell their children that their dad was gone. “They don’t get it yet,” their grandma said. “They don’t know what to do quite yet.” Michael Krol answered that call. His mother said, he knew the dangers of the job, but he never shied away from his duty. He came 1,000 miles from his home state of Michigan to be a cop in Dallas, telling his family, this is something I wanted to do. And last year, he brought his girlfriend back to Detroit for Thanksgiving. And it was the last time he’d see his family. Michael Smith answered that call. In the Army, and over almost 30 years working for the Dallas Police Association, which gave him the appropriately named Cop’s Cop Award. A man of deep faith; when he was off duty, he could be found at church or playing softball with his two girls. Today, his girls have lost their dad, for God has called Michael home. Patrick Zamarippa, he answered that call. Just 32, a former altar boy who served in the Navy and dreamed of being a cop. He liked to post videos of himself and his kids on social media. On Thursday night, while Patrick went to work, his partner, Christy, posted a photo of her and their daughter at a Texas Rangers game, and tagged the department so that he could see it while on duty. Brent Thompson answered that call. He served his country as a Marine. And years later, as a contractor, he spent time in some of the most dangerous parts of Iraq and Afghanistan. And then a few years ago, he settled down here in Dallas for a new life of service as a transit cop. And just about two weeks ago, he married a fellow officer, their whole life together waiting before them. Like police officers across the country, these men and their families shared a commitment to something larger than themselves. They weren’t looking for their names to be up in lights. They’d tell you the pay was decent, but wouldn’t make you rich. They could have told you about the stress and long shifts. And they’d probably agree with Chief Brown when he said that cops don’t expect to hear the words “thank you” very often, especially from those who need them the most. No. The reward comes in knowing that our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law, that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labor, that in this country we don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules. Instead, we have public servants, police officers, like the men who were taken away from us. And that’s what these five were doing last Thursday when they were assigned to protect and keep orderly a peaceful protest in response to the killing of Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge and Philando Castile of Minnesota. OBAMA: They were upholding the constitutional rights of this country. For a while, the protests went on without incident. And despite the fact that police conduct was the subject of the protest, despite the fact that there must have been signs or slogans or chants with which they profoundly disagreed, these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were. In fact, the police had been part of the protest planning. Dallas P.D. even posted photos on their Twitter feeds of their own officers standing among the protesters. Two officer, black and white, smiled next to a man with a sign that read “no justice, no peace.” And then around nine o'clock, the gunfire came. Another community torn apart; more hearts broken; more questions about what caused and what might prevent another such tragedy. I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week. First, the shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, the protests. Then the targeting of police by the shooter here, an act not just of demented violence, but of racial hatred. All of it has left us wounded and angry and hurt. This is – the deepest faultlines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened. And although we know that such divisions are not new, though they’ve surely been worse in even the recent past, that offers us little comfort. Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience. 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. 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. I know we’ll make because of what I’ve experienced in my own life; what I’ve seen of this country and its people, their goodness and decency, as president of the United States. And I know it because of what we’ve seen here in Dallas, how all of you out of great suffering have shown us the meaning of perseverance and character and hope.
OBAMA: When the bullets started flying, the men and women of the Dallas police, they did not flinch and they did not react recklessly. They showed incredible restraint. Helped in some cases by protesters, they evacuated the injured, isolated the shooter, saved more lives than we will ever know. We mourn fewer people today because of your brave actions. “Everyone was helping each other,” one witness said. And it wasn’t about black or white. Everyone was picking each other up and moving them away. See, that’s the America I know. The police helped Shetamia Taylor as she was shot trying to shield her four sons. She said she wanted her boys to join her to protest the incidents of black men being killed. She also said to the Dallas P.D., thank you for being heroes. And today, her 12-year-old son wants to be a cop when he grows up. That’s the America I know. In the aftermath of the shooting, we’ve seen Mayor Rawlings and Chief Brown, a white man and a black man with different backgrounds, working not just to restore order and support a shaken city, a shaken department, but working together to unify a city with strength and grace and wisdom. And in the process, we’ve been reminded that the Dallas Police Department has been at the forefront of improving relations between police and the community. The murder rate here has fallen. Complaints of excessive force have been cut by 64 percent. The Dallas Police Department has been doing it the right way. And so, Mayor Rawlings and Chief Brown, on behalf of the American people, thank you for your steady leadership. Thank you for your powerful example. We could not be prouder of you. These men, this department, this is the America I know. And today in this audience, I see people who have protested on behalf of criminal justice reform grieving alongside police officers. I see people who mourn for the five officers we lost, but also weep for the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In this audience, I see what’s possible. I see what’s possible when we recognize that we are one American family, all deserving of equal treatment. All deserving equal respect. All children of God. That’s the America I know. Now, I’m not naive. I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency. I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence. And I’ve seen how a spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate, overtaken by the return to business as usual, by inertia and old habits and expediency.
OBAMA: I see how easily we slip back into our old notions, because they’re comfortable, we’re used to them. I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been. And so, I’m reminded of a passage in John’s Gospel, “let us love, not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.” If we’re to sustain the unity, we need to get through these difficult times. If we are to honor these five outstanding officers who we lost, then we will need to act on the truths that we know. That’s not easy. It makes us uncomfortable, but we’re going to have to be honest with each other and ourselves. We know that the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professional. They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn When anyone, no matter how good their intentions may be, paints all police as biased, or bigoted, we undermine those officers that we depend on for our safety. And as for those who use rhetoric suggesting harm to police, even if they don’t act on it themselves, well, they not only make the jobs of police officers even more dangerous, but they do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote. We also know that centuries of racial discrimination, of slavery, and subjugation, and Jim Crow; they didn’t simply vanish with the law against segregation. They didn’t necessarily stop when a Dr. King speech, or when the civil rights act or voting rights act were signed. Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime. Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress. But we know… But America, we know that bias remains. We know it, whether you are black, or white, or Hispanic, or Asian, or native American, or of Middle Eastern descent, we have all seen this bigotry in our own lives at some point. We’ve heard it at times in our own homes. If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts. We know that. And while some suffer far more under racism’s burden, some feel to a far greater extent discrimination’s stain. Although most of us do our best to guard against it and teach our children better, none of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune, and that includes our police departments. We know this.
OBAMA: And so when African-Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment, when study after study shows that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently. So that if you’re black, you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested; more likely to get longer sentences; more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime. When mothers and fathers raised their kids right, and have the talk about how to respond if stopped by a police officer – yes, sir; no, sir – but still fear that something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door; still fear that kids being stupid and not quite doing things right might end in tragedy. When all this takes place, more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid. We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members, again and again and again, it hurts. Surely we can see that, all of us. We also know what Chief Brown has said is true, that so much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves. As a society, we choose to under-invest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs. We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book. And then we tell the police, “You’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor.” We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience; don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over. We know those things to be true. They’ve been true for a long time. We know it. Police, you know it. Protesters, you know it. You know how dangerous some of the communities where these police officers serve are. And you pretend as if there’s no context. These things we know to be true. And if we cannot even talk about these things, if we cannot talk honestly and openly, not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle. OBAMA: In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work. It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism and finding the will to make change. Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human. I don’t know. I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt. I’ve been to too many of these things. I’ve seen too many families go through this. But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. “I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.” That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens. That’s what we’ve seen in Dallas these past few days, and that’s what we must sustain. Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes. So that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie, who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous. And the teenager – maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words, and values and authority of his parents. With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans, not just opponents, but to enemies. With an open heart, those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward. Look at the model set by the five officers we mourn today. Acknowledge the progress brought about by the sincere efforts of police departments like this one in Dallas. And embark on the hard, but necessary work of negotiation, the pursuit of reconciliation. With an open heart, police departments will acknowledge that just like the rest of us, they’re not perfect. That insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals. And I understand these protests – I see them. They can be messy. Sometimes they can be hijacked by an irresponsible few. Police can get hurt. Protesters can get hurt. They can be frustrated. But even those who dislike the phrase “black lives matter,” surely, we should be able to hear the pain of Alton Sterling’s family. We should – when we hear a friend describe him by saying that, whatever he cooked, he cooked enough for everybody, that should sound familiar to us, that maybe he wasn’t so different than us. So that we can, yes, insist that his life matters.
OBAMA: Just as we should hear the students and co-workers describe their affection for Philando Castile as a gentle soul. Mr. Rogers with deadlocks, they called him. And know that his life mattered to a whole lot of people of all races, of all ages, and that we have to do what we can without putting officers' lives at risk, but do better to prevent another life like his from being lost. With an open heart, we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right Because the vicious killer of these police officers – they won’t be the last person who tries to make us turn on one another. The killer in Orlando wasn’t nor was the killer in Charleston. We know there is evil in this world, that’s why we need police department departments. But as Americans, we can decide that people like this killer will ultimately fail. They will not drive us apart. We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share. We also glory in our suffers because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. For all of us, life presents challenges and suffering. Accidents, illnesses, the loss of loved ones; there are times when we are overwhelmed by sudden calamity, natural or man-made. All of us, we make mistakes, and at times we are lost. And as we get older, we learn we don’t always have control of things, not even a president does. But we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control or how we treat one another. America does not ask us to be perfect, precisely because of our individual imperfections, our founders gave us institutions to guard against tyranny and ensure no one is above the law. A democracy that gives us the space to work through our differences and debate them peacefully, to make things better, even if it doesn’t always happen as fast as we’d like. America gives us the capacity to change. But as the men we mourn today, these five heroes knew better than most, we cannot take the blessings of this nation for granted. Only by working together can we preserve those institutions of family and community, rights and responsibilities, law and self-government that is the hallmark of this nation. It turns out we do not persevere along. Our character is not found in isolation. Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down, it is found by lifting others up. And that’s what I take away from the lives of these outstanding men. The pain we feel may not soon pass, but my faith tells me that they did not die in vain. I believe our sorrow can make us a better country. I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace. Weeping may endure for a night but I’m convinced joy comes in the morning.
OBAMA: 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. We cannot match their courage, but we can strive to match their devotion. May God bless their memory. May God bless this country that we love.