Obama Breaks Down ‘Black Lives Matter’ During Panel on Criminal-Justice Reform

While calling for strong, effective and fair law enforcement, the president spoke extensively on the intersection between race and the criminal-justice system.

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BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

To President Barack Obama, the Black Lives Matter creed-turned-movement makes sense. Speaking on a panel on criminal justice, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Thursday, the president attempted to explain the difference between and relevancy of the BLM mantra versus the counter chants of “All lives matter.”

“I think everybody understands all lives matter,” the president said. “I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘Black lives matter’ was not because they said they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter; rather, what they were suggesting was, there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

The president underlined the necessity for strong and effective law enforcement and for safe communities, but also pointed out the realities that African-American communities face.

“One of the ways of avoiding the politics of this and losing the moment is everybody just stepping back for a second and understanding that the African-American community is not just making this up, and it’s not just something being politicized; it’s real and there’s a history behind it.  And we have to take it seriously,” he insisted.

The president referenced times when he himself as a young man was driving and “got stopped and I didn’t know why,” as he spoke of racial bias and racial tensions.

Still, the president made sure to give a nod to the tough job police officers face and the difficult decisions they often have to make, saying that it was imperative not to “paint with a broad brush, [and to] understand that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement is doing the right thing and wants to do the right thing.”

Joining Obama on the panel, moderated by Bill Keller of the Marshall Project, was Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado John Walsh. More than 100 local law-enforcement officials were in attendance, after throwing in their support to reduce the prison population in the United States.

During the panel, Obama acknowledged that the goals for criminal-justice reform in the United States would have to include fairness—regardless of race, wealth and other identities; proportionality of punishment to crime; and the recognition that incarceration is not the only solution to reducing crime and violence in communities.

“If [incarceration is] the only tool—if we think we only have a hammer, then everything becomes a nail—then we’re missing opportunities for us to create safer communities through drug diversion and treatment, for example, or through more effective re-entry programs, or getting to high school kids or middle school or elementary school kids earlier so that they don’t get in trouble in the first place, and how are we resourcing that,” the president said.

The president also said that age should be a factor to consider in sentencing, since “young people do stupid stuff, and as they get older, they get a little less stupid.” His comments punctuated by audience laughter, Obama insisted that he spoke from “experience,” in addition to learning from his own girls, who, while being “a lot smarter,” still show “gaps in judgment.”

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