Here he was on another American afternoon, standing on a stage in front of a grieving crowd and a troubled nation and with his words, his mere presence, a look, a pause, a phrase, he made all the politics we have endured for months appear small and insignificant. He is Barack Obama, President of the United States, and yesterday, again, he spoke for those who rise each day in silence and anonymity to go about their day in a country that needs to be reminded that division will never destroy the dream that is America.
“I’m here to insist that we are not so divided as we seem. I say that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life.”
He was in Dallas because of gunshots in the night, gunshots fired by a racist, gunshots that killed five police officers and broke another piece of a nation’s troubled heart. It is a wearying event, the pause in a president’s calendar to memorialize the moment, honor the dead, reflect on the meaning of the lives lost and give voice to a loss so large that some of the living will never truly get over it.
His voice seemed a mix of exhaustion and frustration. He has hugged, consoled and cried with so many parents who have lost children, wives who have lost husbands, many of whom wore the uniform of our country or a badge or carried a backpack full with school books. The list is long and sad and often inexplicable. It numbers casualties of a war fought now 15 years; those dead who were swallowed by the street, by the violence that haunts so many specific neighborhoods isolated by neglect and tormented by those among them who prey on the innocent and the vulnerable, much of it fueled by the total insanity and cowardice of a political system afraid to require potential gun buyers to pass a background check you’d need to drive a school bus or be a Little League coach.
He spoke about violence that is epidemic in too many places. And his voice rose a bit as he defined that violence because he does know where he comes from, Chicago, where he lived and worked, where violence is horrific, daily and deadly too.
But there is in this country, our country, the deeper, lingering violence of institutions that fail to respond to reality, to needs visible to anyone who leads a normal life: the violence of failing schools, broken families, joblessness and, for too many, lack of access to basic things most take for granted: supermarkets, banks, drug stores, hospitals, public transportation, safe playgrounds and hope. And he spoke to another reality of urban life in America when he said, “We ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves.”
Every time the social and cultural fabric has been torn, disrupted, shattered or quakes a bit we ask cops to take care of the problem, to stand between us and the other. And nearly every time panic, fear, lack of training, race, bigotry, ignorance or accident results in the questionable death of a civilian, the nation turns its lonely, isolated eyes to the anonymity, smugness and unearned cynicism of Twitter, Facebook and SnapChat to indict and castigate.
So here we are, on the eve of another day when another city, Dallas, begins the ordeal of burying their dead. The services occur a few days before the first of two national political conventions where two terribly flawed candidates will be nominated to run for President of the United States.
You may not have voted for Barack Obama. You may not like his policies or his politics. You may be anxious about the immediate future and bothered by the recent past. You may be filled with anxiety, even fear, about the conduct of our long war, about terrorism and the spread of freelancers, lone wolves, all operating under the violent ideology of ISIS.
But if you heard him yesterday, watched him, listened – really listened – you heard a man, the President of the United States, who spoke to what is best in us and what will save us from the calamity of racial and class division. He is the only president we have and on one American afternoon in July 2016 he was the one we so badly need.