America faced another jarring split-screen moment Monday afternoon as President Barack Obama delved into the plight of urban communities in a deeply personal speech at the same time tensions increased once again between police and African-American Baltimore residents.
Obama pledged during a speech in the Bronx, a borough in New York City, to spend “the rest of my life” working to improve battered urban communities through the re-launching of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which aids and mentors young minority men and boys, as a not-for-profit organization.
But even as Obama was announcing the initiative, cable news stations paired his remarks with images of the again-heightened unrest in Baltimore, where a single fired shot had once again led to a wall of police officers facing a growing crowd of residents.
The protests stayed calm on Monday – a week after the city erupted in riots – but more and more people moved into the streets after Baltimore police arrested a man who was allegedly carrying a handgun, which police say fired once. Lines of law enforcement also encircled the scene.
Police said the man wasn’t shot, as some media outlets initially reported, but members of the community told reporters on the scene they had little reason to believe what they were told by law enforcement officers.
Obama, indicating a direction his life might take out of office, said, “There’s no shortage of people telling you who and what is to blame for the plight of these communities. But I’m not interested in blame. I’m interested in responsibility, and I’m interested in results.”
“It’s not enough to celebrate the ideals that we’re built on, liberty and justice and equality for all. Those just can’t be words on paper,” Obama said. “The work of every generation is to make those words mean something, concrete in the lives of our children. And we won’t get there as long as kids in Baltimore or Ferguson or New York or Appalachia or the Mississippi delta or the Pine Ridge reservation believe that their lives are somehow worthless.”
He said police officers often find themselves on the front lines in “communities where there’s no hope” – where “fathers are absent and schools are substandard and jobs are scarce and drugs are plentiful.”
Obama also cautioned against ineffectual responses to high-profile instances of violence.
“There are consequences to inaction. There are consequences to indifference,” he said. “And they reverberate far beyond the walls of the projects, the borders of the barrier or the roads of the reservation. They sap us of our strength as a nation.”
Obama complained that struggling urban communities aren’t the subject of much media attention when they aren’t in crisis, as Baltimore and before it Ferguson, Missouri, have been in the last year.
But Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, he said he’ll remain involved in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative even after he leaves the White House in early 2017.
“This will remain a mission for me and for Michelle, not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life,” Obama said.
“We see ourselves in these young men,” he said. “I grew up without a dad. I grew up lost sometimes and adrift, not having a sense of a clear path.
“The only difference between me and a lot of other young men in this neighborhood and all across the country is that I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving,” he said. “At some critical points, I had some people who cared enough about me to give me a second chance or a third chance or give me a little guidance when I needed it, or to open up a door that might otherwise have been closed.”