Why Eric Garner's daughter walked out of Obama's town hall forum

After the promise of a forum to discuss race, policing, and violence with President Obama, some activists and community members wish ABC's televised 'town hall' could have been more. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama greets people in the audience after participating in a town hall with ABC news anchor David Muir on Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Washington.

ABC’s televised event with President Obama was meant to be a conversation about race, policing, and community, drawing together people whose lives have been impacted by recent police violence toward black Americans or by responses to that violence and giving them an opportunity to question the president about how the nation can move forward.

But in the hours that have passed since the conversation was aired Thursday night, some activists, family of those killed in police shootings, and observers have taken to social media to express their disappointment and frustration with the event – both its form and content. 

“We were excited to uplift what was going to come out of it, and instead we had to react with #ABCdontSpeakForMe as a way to get our voices heard, where they weren’t in that actual forum,” says Daunasia Yancey, founder and lead organizer of the Boston chapter of Black Lives Matter.

The pushback came for a variety of reasons – activists worried that the conversation actually perpetuated a divide between communities of color and the police, or that it glossed over the true issues at the heart of racial inequality in America, like access to education, health care, and employment. And many of the people in the room were not given the opportunity to speak, as the decision about which participants would address the president was made by ABC.

Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner who died in 2014 after police put him in a chokehold, walked out of the taping of the event after she was not called upon to question the president about the investigation into her father’s death. Ms. Garner said that she was “lied to” by ABC, and while she was able to have a short meeting with the president off-stage, she tweeted that the event was “nothing short of full exploitation of Black pain and grief.”

Her feelings were echoed by Ms. Yancey, who points to the ubiquity of images of the shootings of black Americans in the media and suggests this was in contrast to a reticence to show other images of death. This tendency to “put black grief on display” was highlighted, she says, by the network’s decision to play footage of 15-year-old Cameron Sterling crying hysterically over the death of his father, Alton Sterling, at the hands of a Baton Rouge police officer, directly before the young man was asked to stand and address the president.

“I was looking to hear some affirmation of the grief that communities and individuals are feeling,” Yancey says. “I didn’t hear, ‘I’m sorry for the loss of your father and we will get to the bottom of this.’”

But for Yancey, the event’s central failing was the focus on the violence facing police, which she calls an overblown threat. Present in the audience were several officers and family members of both current officers and those who have been killed in violence against police. The president addressed the concerns of police and their families about safety and public opinion.

"We expect police to solve a whole range of societal problems that we ourselves have neglected," Mr. Obama said.

Yancey felt the “continuous thread” of protecting police “distracted from this vibrant conversation” that could have taken place about concerns such as funding for alternatives to policing, and steps to foster equality. 

Activists would have preferred a discussion on more substantive changes, such as alternatives to policing and prisons and the need for strong communities with good schools, mental and general health care, and jobs.

“Racial justice is economic justice – those two things cannot be divorced,” says Charlene Carruthers, director of the Chicago-based Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a justice-oriented activist organization, in a phone interview with the Monitor.

Ms. Carruthers suggests that government at all levels needs to make more of a commitment to truly addressing issues of inequality and enduring racism and funding black communities instead of police forces – something that she wishes was discussed more at the town hall, but also acted on more at all levels of government.

“It should be simple, but unfortunately we have so much work to do.”

Obama appeared to agree with this, saying at one point during the segment: “At the end of the day, I can give a nice speech, we can have a town hall, we can – the Justice Department can investigate certain cases or provide assistance and training to police officers so that they’re safe. We can do all those things, but real change is gonna happen at the local level."

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