President Obama had to cut short a vacation in sunny Spain, where he conferred with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, to say that physically or verbally attacking law enforcement officers will only hurt efforts to reform the American criminal justice system, of which he has been a notable critic. In order to attend to business at home, Obama had to cram his official calls on officials in Madrid and forego a pleasure trip elsewhere in Spain. Despite criticisms of the widespread Black Lives Matter movement, which has staged raucous demonstrations in numerous cities across the country, Obama said that the actions of a few of its members should not be used to besmirch the entire movement.
In Warsaw on July 7, where he met with NATO leaders, Obama also spoke about the repudiation of the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and cited them as examples of failures of policing and criminal justice. He cited statistics as proof that black men are arrested at a higher rate than white men.
In Spain, he again referred to the domestic turmoil when he was asked about the Black Lives Matter protests in several major U.S. cities, including Minneapolis and Detroit. As he stood next to Rajoy, Obama said, "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." He called on listeners to sift out the bad apples from the good among the Black Lives Matter protesters. The latter, he said, are the "overwhelming majority" among the protesters, he said, while echoing a similar sentiment that he expressed on July 7 when he said that the "vast majority" of police officers are doing their jobs well.
"Now in a movement like Black Lives Matter, there are always going to be some folks who say things that are stupid or imprudent or over-generalized or harsh," he said. "And I don’t think that we can hold well-meaning activists who are doing the right thing at peaceful protests responsible for everything that is uttered at the protest site."
"First of all, any violence directed at police officers is a reprehensible crime and it needs to be prosecuted," Obama said. "But even rhetoric -- if we paint them in broad brush strokes 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 -– if our rhetoric does not recognize that then we are going to lose allies in the reform cause."
Obama said he believes "what the overwhelming majority of people who are involved in the [Black Lives Matter movement] really want to see is a better relationship between police and the community so that they can feel that it is serving them." He has met at the White House with members of the movement. "America over time has benefited from free speech," he said, listing labor, civil rights, and the environmentalist movements as examples of how protest has shaped the United States.
Obama explained that Black Lives Matter protesters have a right to "speak truth to power." He noted, "And that is sometimes messy and controversial."
"But because of that ability to protest and engage in free speech, America overtime has gotten better."
He warned 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."
Obama also cautioned Black Lives Matter against using extreme rhetoric. "If we paint police in broad brush, without recognizing 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 doesn't recognize that then we're going to lose allies in the reform cause."
"In a movement like Black Lives Matter, there are always going to be people who say things that are stupid or are imprudent or are overgeneralized or are 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," Obama said. "But I think the overwhelming majority of people that are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, what they really want to see is a better relationship between the police and the community so that they can feel that it's serving them."
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