Obama: 'Longstanding Tradition' of 'Contentious and Messy' Protest Needed in America

President Obama told reporters in Spain today that protest as has been seen over the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile “is sometimes messy and controversial,” but “because of that ability to protest and engage in free speech, America, over time, has gotten better.”

“The abolition movement was contentious. The effort for women to get the right to vote was contentious and messy. There were times when activists might have engaged in rhetoric that was overheated and occasionally counterproductive. But the point was to raise issues so that we, as a society, could grapple with it. The same was true with the Civil Rights Movement, the union movement, the environmental movement, the antiwar movement during Vietnam. And I think what you’re seeing now is part of that longstanding tradition,” Obama said alongside Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

“What I would say is this — that whenever those of us who are concerned about fairness in the criminal justice system attack police officers, you are doing a disservice to the cause. First of all, any violence directed at police officers is a reprehensible crime and needs to be prosecuted. But even rhetorically, if we paint police in broad brush, without recognizing that the vast majority of police officers are doing a really good job and are trying to protect people and do so fairly and without racial bias, if our rhetoric does not recognize that, then we’re going to lose allies in the reform cause.”

Obama is returning from his overseas trip early to speak along with former President George W. Bush at a memorial in Dallas on Tuesday for the five police officers killed by a sniper during a protest against officer-involved shootings last week.

He noted today that “in a movement like Black Lives Matter, there’s always going to be some folks who say things that are stupid, or imprudent, or overgeneralized, or harsh.”

“And I don’t think that you can hold well-meaning activists who are doing the right thing and peacefully protesting responsible for everything that is uttered at a protest site,” he added. “But I would just say to everybody who’s concerned about the issue of police shootings or racial bias in the criminal justice system that maintaining a truthful and serious and respectful tone is going to help mobilize American society to bring about real change. And that is our ultimate objective.”

The president noted that Dallas had already implemented reforms sought by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“That’s part of why it’s so tragic that those officers were targeted in Dallas, a place that is — because of its transparency and training and openness and engagement in the community — has drastically brought down the number of police shootings and complaints about misconduct,” Obama said.

He added that while protesters should “maintain a respectful, thoughtful tone” he hoped that police “are also respectful of the frustration that people in these communities feel and not just dismiss these protests and these complaints as political correctness, or as politics or attacks on police.”

“There are legitimate issues that have been raised, and there’s data and evidence to back up the concerns that are being expressed by these protesters,” he said.

“And if police organizations and departments acknowledge that there’s a problem and there’s an issue, then that, too, is going to contribute to real solutions. And, as I said yesterday, that is what’s going to ultimately help make the job of being a cop a lot safer. It is in the interest of police officers that their communities trust them and that the kind of rancor and suspicion that exists right now is alleviated.”