Two hours before President Barack Obama was scheduled to speak, a small group gathered on the stone steps across the street. Small yet vocal, they offered words of encouragement to the many navy blue-clad Dallas Police officers funneling into the entrance of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, which was framed by two fire trucks displaying a massive American flag.
“God bless you!” a soft voice shouted from the group.
The gathered crowd had come to show support while hoping to steal a glance of Obama, who had come to Dallas today to address an interfaith service for the five men killed in last week’s ambush.
Logically I knew the significance of Obama’s presence, the reason why he’d come to Dallas on a balmy Tuesday morning in July. But the magnitude of that didn’t effectively hit me until I was standing in the media entrance line, where I overheard Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright settling his credentials. I froze.
Here I was, a humble writer for a local magazine covering an event a few blocks from my office, in the company of national and international media who had converged on the site. (This feeling quickly shifted to amusement, however, seeing the utter lack of recognition on the face of the woman whom was checking Wright in when he told her “I’m from The New York-er,” he said. “What’s your parent company?” she asked in response.)
The 2,600-seat venue gradually filled to capacity, mostly with Dallas and DART police officers, as well as the victims’ families.
Members of Arlington’s police force provided security for the service — an effort to temporarily relieve DPD. Inside, five empty, flag-draped seats were left in memory of the fallen officers.
During the service, Mayor Mike Rawlings, Obama, former President George W. Bush, Dallas Police Chief David Brown, and faith leaders spoke, each leaving their own mark. Between speakers, the choir, whose members were comprised from churches throughout North Texas, delivered a beautiful, yet haunting version of an anonymous poem from a Holocaust victim. The rendition set the tone for Obama’s message.
“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
With a familiar, somber look on his face, Obama did something he’s been tasked with more than 11 times in his presidency. He offered soothing words of hope, understanding, and support after a tragedy. This time, the tragedy was in our backyard.
“I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem,” Obama said during his 40-minute speech. “I say that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. And I know we’ll make it because of that I’ve experienced in my own life.”
But Obama noted the limitations and ineffective nature of words alone.
“I am not naïve,” he said. “I’ve spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency.”
Obama carefully balanced his words, acknowledging the issue of race in America as well as the difficulty of police officers’ jobs.
Much like Tim, there were a few moments throughout this afternoon where I felt my throat tighten and tears begin to well. I held it in for later. (Pro Tip: You never want to be the singular reporter openly crying.) Obama’s plea for us to become a more open-hearted America remains with me. There’s a complicated intersection in the importance of both #BlackLivesMatter and police officers in our country. Obama’s words were an attempt to soothe that wound through defining similarities that show our humanity.
“Surely, we should be able to hear the pain of Alton Sterling’s family,” Obama said. “With an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes.”
Bush, too, had moments of resolve. Perhaps his most poignant comment came in discussing our daily interactions as a society: “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
Even in a somber time, Brown and Obama offered a bit of laughter. Brown preceded the president with lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s song “As,” emphasizing the lyric “I’ll be loving you always” in memory of the deceased officers. “I’m so glad I met Michelle first,” Obama quipped. “She loves Stevie Wonder.”
LAURA: George, be on your best behavior.
GEORGE: Of course I will!
LAURA: No dancing.
GEORGE: … pic.twitter.com/qNnyTWbe6i
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) July 12, 2016
Hand in hand, the Bushes, Obamas, Bidens, Rawlings, Brown, and others ended the service singing along to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — while Bush, grasping Michelle Obama’s hand, swayed ardently, smiling and singing along.
As officers filtered out of the Meyerson, they were met with hugs and words of encouragement from onlookers and one lone protestor.
One officer, a veteran of the force for more than 30 years, always hoped she’d have the opportunity to see the president speak in person — but not like this.
The officer, an African-American woman in her early 60s, spent some of her career on the force’s downtown bike unit.
“I loved it, loved interacting with people.” She paused. “But you’re too much of a moving target now.”