Thursday’s ABC town hall with President Barack Obama was anticipated with bated breath.
Many were looking forward to an honest conversation about race and about the current tensions between the black community and police officers in the aftermath of the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the attack in Dallas that left five officers dead.
Unfortunately, many activists left disappointed, even angry, at what they witnessed and heard.
Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who died after being choked by New York City police in 2014, stormed out of the taping of the town hall, saying that she had been “railroaded” by the network, denied the opportunity to ask the president a question, something she said she had been promised.
Garner said she felt that she had been “used for ratings,” and a few activists in the room agreed that the event seemed to be manipulative.
"It felt manipulative and disingenuous, and if we’re really trying to have a town hall about race in this country, it’s going to have to look much more like a truth-and-reconciliation process. It can’t be an hour and 15 minutes with the president taking up the most space, with people asking what he thinks of things instead of demanding that he do things,” Patrisse Kahn-Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Network, told The Root Friday.
"The town hall was clearly a curated event for ABC to quell protesters and organizers. It had nothing to do with actual future for black people, and I think that for us, we want to push POTUS in his last few months as the president to take executive action, to defund law-enforcement agencies that have consistently violated the civil and human rights of black people,” she added.
Pastor Traci Blackmon of the Christ the King United Church of Christ, and the acting executive minister of justice and witness of the United Church of Christ, wrote an extensive Facebook post after the town hall, describing her own disappointment.
“There was a lot of talk about police making ‘mistakes.’ There was not even an acknowledgment of the possibility that some of these killings by law-enforcement officers are not mistakes; some of them are crimes, and we didn’t talk about that. We talked about other things that are needed in the African-American community for communities to survive, and all of that is true, but we didn’t talk about ways for those things to happen and we didn’t talk about viable strategies,” Blackmon told The Root.
Blackmon described how Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was seated next to Cameron Sterling, son of Alton Sterling, and tried to “forge a relationship” with the boy, giving Cameron a pin and telling him to wear it.
Later, when Patrick was called upon to ask a question, he called Cameron up to stand with him as he talked about the president’s need to support the police.
Blackmon was also uncomfortable with the fact that the mother of Michael Slager, the South Carolina police officer who fatally shot Walter Scott, was acknowledged in a room full of people whose families were directly impacted by police violence.
“What did you think it would do to families who are already living with daily trauma to call on those people? And you didn’t call on not one of the people of the [victims] who were in the room—Eric Garner’s daughter, Mike Brown’s mother, you didn’t call the victims on the other side,” Blackmon said. “I thought it was extremely imbalanced and manipulative for all involved, and I was offended by it. … [We] cannot continue to allow media to abuse us for the purpose of rating.
“If it had been a town hall meeting and conversation was happening and people were feeding off of one another in that conversation and certain things did not get reached or touched on, then that’s a different thing, but that’s not what happened,” she added. “You had a moderator with a handful of papers with questions, certainly having to make decisions, but in your decisions, you were not balanced. And you are the only one in the room that has all of the pieces. And your only job is to present a balanced story. I’m disappointed in that.”
Both activists pondered whether or not the town hall would have happened if there had been no shooting in Dallas.
"I definitely think that the Dallas tragedy is making the media inflate the killings of police officers and the killings of black people by police officers. Obama spent a lot of time at the town hall saying all grief is the same and we have to come together, and while those two things are true, what we didn’t discuss is why black people continue to be killed with impunity by law enforcement and who is going to actually hold them accountable. What legislative process, what legislative change is going to get us there?” Kahn-Cullors said.
For Blackmon, it was a missed opportunity. “My heart goes out to all of those families. That’s not right. But it’s also not representative of an entire movement of people simply saying, ‘I want the opportunity to be judged by my humanity and not by your personal perception of who I am.’ That’s the essence, and that’s what I was hoping we would get to yesterday. Common humanity. And instead what we got to was more of the same. More of the same, with the extra icing being the POTUS,” she lamented.
Blackmon stressed that she is aware that the overwhelming and vast majority of police officers are good and doing their best at their job. However, she said, “that does not excuse not prosecuting and not investigating thoroughly and not bringing about change in the cases where that is not true. That’s the discussion I think we should have been having yesterday.”
Breanna Edwards is news editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.