President Obama took to a podium soon after touching down in Warsaw for a NATO summit today to stress that outrage at police shootings in recent days shouldn’t be labeled as expressions of political correctness.
Obama’s remarks came not 24 hours after Diamond Reynolds posted a livestream on Facebook of the moments after a Minnesota police officer shot her fiance, 32-year-old Philando Castile.
Their car had been pulled over in broad daylight for a broken taillight. Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter was in a carseat in the back. Reynolds explained that Castile, the cafeteria supervisor at a Montessori school, was licensed to carry and advised the officer he had a firearm.
“Please don’t tell me this, Lord. Please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone,” she says in the video. “Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
Castile’s only history with the law was misdemeanor traffic violations.
Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside of a mini-mart in Baton Rogue, La., when he was confronted by police officers who had received a call about a man brandishing a gun. Video captured officers pinning Sterling to the ground, then shooting him.
CNN reported today that it was a homeless man who had asked Sterling for money and been rebuffed — “I told you to leave me alone,” Sterling reportedly said before showing the man his gun — who had called 911.
The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation in Baton Rouge. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said today that he wants the DOJ to investigate Castile’s shooting.
“According to various studies, not just one, but a wide range of studies that have been carried out over a number of years, African-Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over. After being pulled over, African-Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched. Last year, African-Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites,” Obama said.
“…And when incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same. And that hurts. And that should trouble all of us. This is not just a black issue. It’s not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we should all care about, all fair-minded people should be concerned.”
Obama voiced “extraordinary appreciation and respect for the vast majority of police officers who put their lives on the line to protect us every single day” and spoke of their right to come home to their families at the end of shift as well as the difficulty they face in split-second decisions.
“But when we see data that indicates disparities in how African-Americans and Latinos may be treated in various jurisdictions around the country, and it’s incumbent on all of us to say, we can do better than this, we are better than this, and to not have it degenerate into the usual political scrum,” he said. “We should be able to step back, reflect, and ask ourselves, what can we do better so that everybody feels as if they’re equal under the law?”
The president stressed that he hoped “we don’t fall into the typical patterns that occur after these kinds of incidents occur, where right away there’s a lot of political rhetoric and it starts dividing people instead of bringing folks together.”
“To be concerned about these issues is not to be against law enforcement,” Obama added. “There are times when these incidents occur and you see protests and you see vigils, and I get letters, well-meaning letters sometimes, from law enforcement saying, how come we’re under attack? How come not as much emphasis is made when police officers are shot? And so to all of law enforcement, I want to be very clear. We know you have a tough job. We mourn those in uniform who are protecting us who lose their lives.”
There are, Obama said, “biases, some conscious and unconscious, that have to be rooted out.”
“When people say black lives matter, that doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter. It just means all lives matter but, right now, the big concern is the fact that the data shows black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents,” he said. “This isn’t a matter of us comparing the value of lives. This is recognizing that there’s a particular burden that is being placed on a group of our fellow citizens and we should care about that. And we can’t dismiss it.”
The president called on “those who question the sincerity or the legitimacy of protests and vigils and expressions of outrage, who somehow label those expressions of outrage as ‘political correctness,’ I just ask folks to step back and think, what if this happened to somebody in your family? How would you feel?”
“To be concerned about these issues is not political correctness. It’s just being American and wanting to live up to our best and highest ideals.”
Protests popped up in major cities tonight, including New York, Atlanta, Dallas and Washington.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) emerged to lend his support to demonstrators via bullhorn and remind them to express their outrage peacefully. Some of the protesters booed at the Congressional Black Caucus members, yelling “do your job.”
“No one, not anyone, can hide behind their badge to commit murder,” Lewis tweeted earlier.