A few weeks ago, I watched President Obama’s speech at the memorial service for the five Dallas police officers killed in the line of duty. They’d been protecting marchers during a Black Lives Matter protest against the shooting of two black men in one week. The speech itself had much to recommend it, but I couldn’t help but be drawn to the people sitting behind him and what their reactions to the speech have to say about us.
As with many political speeches, the background was staged, with audience members directly behind the president. Some were white men in police uniform. Some were black, mostly women. They all sat respectfully and silently as the president spoke.
But it was their facial expressions that captivated me. The president was careful to walk a fine line in his speech, honoring the fallen policemen, while also acknowledging the real grievances of the black community and their treatment by way too many cops. First he’d deliver a line about the difficulties of policing, then he’d say one about the challenges of being black, explaining that he understood that no one side of the issue was “right,” but that we have to find an inclusive solution that addresses everyone’s concerns.
What was interesting, though, was that as he spoke, the people behind him all responded in their own ways. When he said things like “Police officers are called upon not just to be officers of the law, but teachers and counselors,” the white men in uniform nodded knowingly and wearily. When he said things like, “Too many black mothers live in fear of whether they’ll see their sons again when they say goodbye to them in the morning,” the black women nodded solemnly. But here’s the thing: neither side nodded for the lines intended for the “other” side. The white men did not nod in agreement when the fears of mothers were mentioned, despite the fact that most of them are probably fathers who understand what it’s like to worry for your children, and certainly sons who have been worried over. The black women did not agree when police officers’ challenges were mentioned, although they too must know what it’s like to be asked to do a job without sufficient resources and support. Instead of helping people find common ground, the president’s comments were just reaffirming entrenched positions.
I remember in high school, when I was first becoming politically and socially aware, I was convinced that if people could just talk to one another, all war would be eradicated. I remember hearing a story at the time of a summer camp that brought Palestinian and Jewish teens together and taught them how to listen to one another. I just knew that the world’s problems were all going to be eradicated in my lifetime as people learned to compromise. Of course, I don’t need to tell you how that certainty has worked out for me.
The idealism of youth has not entirely left me, but it’s harder to see things in quite so rosy a fashion. We don’t always listen to each other. We don’t always acknowledge each other’s humanity or hear each other’s concerns. I caught myself tearing up at Tim Kaine’s introductory speech in Miami when he said positive things about immigrants, and I realized… I felt it so deeply because it had to do with me. I have a nearly impossible time understanding the economic pressures and fears of obsolescence that drive people to be open to the hate-mongering of a Donald Trump. (For that matter, I have a really hard time having kind thoughts about Donald Trump). When people say that all politics are local, they mean that everyone cares first about their own concerns, and you’ve got to give them what they personally need.
As an idealist, someone who is driven by making things ideal, I have a hard time with this gritty truth. I have always believed myself to stand for principles: being for peace means everything from opposing war to not killing bugs in my own house. Being for the environment means believing in climate change, but also not using any pesticides or weed killers in my garden. Being for life means opposing the death penalty even for the most heinous crimes, like genocide. Seeing people respond only to the statements that apply to them personally flies in the face of upholding high ideals, like justice and equality. Because if justice only means justice for you, does it still exist as a concept, as an ideal?
I continue to struggle with these questions. Seeing that split reaction to the president’s speech did not affirm my yearnings for a people united behind our guiding principles. But the idealist in me has a pragmatic thought: what if this is only the beginning? What if the real work of getting there is messier and not in a straight line? It’s not peace summer camp, but it lights the way. And it gives me hope.