WASHINGTON – Defending the Black Lives Matter movement, President Obama said Thursday the protests are giving voice to a problem happening only in African-American communities, adding, "We, as a society, particularly given our history, have to take this seriously."
Obama said the movement, which sprung up after the deaths of unarmed black men in Florida, Missouri and elsewhere, quickly came to be viewed as being opposed to police and suggesting that other people's lives don't matter. Opponents have countered that "all lives matter."
At the conclusion of a White House forum on criminal justice, Obama said he wanted to make a final point about the nexus of race and the criminal justice system before launching into his defense of the movement.
"I think everybody understands all lives matter," Obama said. "I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' was not because they were suggesting nobody else's lives matter. Rather, what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that's 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."
Police relations with minority communities and the deaths of unarmed black men have been topics of great interest since the shootings of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Florida and 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Those deaths, and others of black women, have inspired protests around the country under the "Black Lives Matter" moniker.
Obama paired his defense of the Black Lives Matter movement with praise for police and other law enforcement officials. Some police groups have been unhappy with Obama's response to the deaths of the unarmed black men. The president lately seems to be making the extra effort to publicly praise police officers for willingly taking on a dangerous assignment.
He did so while participating in a forum on drug abuse Wednesday in Charleston, West Virginia, and next week he's scheduled to address the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
At the White House, Obama said there are specific concerns about whether blacks in certain areas are treated unfairly or are more frequently subjected to excessive force by police.
But the president said people should also "understand the overwhelming majority of law enforcement's doing the right thing and wants to do the right thing" and "recognize that police officers have a really tough job and we're sending them into really tough neighborhoods that sometimes are really dangerous and they've got to make split-second decisions."
He said people shouldn't be "too sanctimonious" about situations that can sometimes be ambiguous.
"But having said all that, we as a society, particularly given our history, have to take this seriously," Obama said. "And 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."
"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 said.
In a separate development, the Black Lives Matter organization on Thursday rejected a town hall-style forum it had been offered by the Democratic National Committee, in lieu of a sanctioned debate it had requested. The group said a town hall wouldn't "sufficiently respond to the concerns raised by our members." The DNC said it has approved only six debates, and all have been scheduled.