WARSAW, Poland – President Barack Obama on Saturday rejected the notion that this week’s stunning violence is a signal that the U.S. has returned to some of the darkest days of its past, saying that as painful as the killings of police and black men were, “America is not as divided as some have suggested.”
“Americans of all races and all backgrounds are rightly outraged by the inexcusable attacks on police, whether it’s in Dallas or anyplace else,” Obama said from Warsaw, where he attended a NATO summit.
“That includes protesters,” Obama added. “It includes family members who have grave concerns about police conduct and they’ve said that this is unacceptable. There’s no division there.”
The comments marked the third time in as many days that Obama has spoken, from a distance, about the police-involved fatal shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota that were followed by a sniper attack in Dallas that killed five police officers Thursday night. Seven officers and two civilians were also injured.
“This has been a tough week,” the president said.
Obama said the Dallas shooter, a black Army veteran who was later killed by police, was a “demented individual” who does not represent black Americans, any more than a white man accused of killing blacks at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, represents whites.
Obama said he would visit Dallas “in a few days” to pay respects and mourn with the stricken Texas city. The shootings, and the ensuing protests in some U.S. cities that followed, led to an uncharacteristic response from the president: He cut his five-day, two-country European trip to four days.
Obama still planned to go ahead with his first visit as president to Spain and was to arrive late Saturday in Madrid, the capital. But he has scrapped a stop in the southern city of Seville and will cram two days of events into one, including meetings with interim President Mariano Rajoy and a visit with U.S. sailors stationed at a naval base in Rota.
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In his news conference before departing Poland, Obama said that while “there is sorrow, there is anger, there is confusion” in the U.S., “there’s unity in recognizing that this is not how we want our communities to operate. This is not who we want to be as Americans and that serves as the basis for us being able to move forward in a constructive and positive way.”
“So we cannot let the actions of a few define all of us,” he said.
The president said he planned to convene a White House meeting in coming days with police officers, community and civil rights activists and others to talk about next steps. He said the “empathy and understanding” that Americans have shown in responding to the events of the past few days, including Dallas police officers even as they came under attack, had given him hope.
“That’s the spirit that we all need to embrace,” Obama said. “That’s the spirit that I want to build on.”
But Obama, who has angered his political opponents after every deadly mass shooting by calling for tighter gun laws, made clear that he will continue to speak out about the need for such measures, which the Republican-controlled Congress has refused to go along with. He said the U.S. is unique among advanced countries in terms of the scale of violence that it experiences.
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Obama also tried to calm public anxiety about personal safety, saying violent crime is actually down in the U.S.
“I am going to keep on talking about the fact that we cannot eliminate all racial tension in our country overnight,” he said. “We are not going to be able to identify, ahead of time, and eliminate every madman or troubled individual who might want to do harm against innocent people. But we can make it harder for them to do so.”
Obama said U.S. history was not repeating itself, and rejected the notion that a 1960s-style mindset had returned.
“You’re not seeing riots and you’re not seeing police going after people who are protesting peacefully,” he said. “You’ve seen almost uniformly peaceful protests and you’ve seen, uniformly, police handling those protests with professionalism.”
“So as tough, as hard, as depressing as the loss of life was this week, we’ve got a foundation to build on,” Obama said. “We just have to have confidence that we can build on those better angels of our nature.”
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Seville, Spain, contributed to this report.