DALLAS (AP) — President Barack Obama on Tuesday gathered with politicians, police officers and families of the fallen in Dallas to call for unity in the wake of the shocking slaying of five police officers by a black man who said he wanted revenge for the killings of blacks by police.
“The soul of our city was pierced,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said, as he welcomed Obama to a memorial service. He said the group had assembled to combat “a common disease” of violence and honor those who fight it, “our men and women in blue, our peacemakers in blue.”
Rawlings spoke steps from five empty chairs and five portraits of the dead officers.
A call for national solidarity was reinforced by several speakers at the interfaith service, including former President George W. Bush, a Dallas resident, who attended with his wife, Laura.
“At times it feels like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together,” Bush said. “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.”
Bush called on Americans to reject the unity of grief and fear.
“We want the unity of hope, affection and higher purpose,” he said.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald were among the officials attending the memorial service.
“Our first responders and law enforcement personnel sacrifice so much for us daily so we can live full and productive lives free from fear,” Price said in a statement prior to the service. “While this attack has reverberated across the nation, the North Texas region has experienced an outpouring of support making us even more certain that we will grow back stronger from this tragedy.”
Obama has denounced the shooting as a “vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement” by a “demented” individual. And he has argued that, despite the heated public outcry of the past week, the country is not as divided as it may seem.
Obama returned to that message in his speech Tuesday and his choice of traveling companions underscored the theme. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California both joined Obama on Air Force One for the flight to Dallas. Republican Sen. John Cornyn attended and spoke at the service, but did not travel with the president.
He described the attack as deeply personal.
“Being a Texan doesn’t describe where you’re from, it describes who your family is,” the senator said.
The White House said the president worked late into the night writing his speech and consulting scripture for inspiration.
In what has become an unwelcome but regular duty of his presidency, Obama was preparing to address the interfaith memorial service in Dallas for the officers. They were killed last Thursday while standing guard as hundreds of people peacefully protested the police killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota earlier in the week.
The attack ended with the gunman, Micah Johnson, 25, blown up by a bomb delivered by a police robot. The black Army veteran portrayed the attack on the officers as payback for the fatal police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and suburban Minneapolis.
Portions of both shootings were videotaped and broadcast nationwide, leading to fresh outrage, protests and scores of arrests. The killings also put the country on edge, heightened racial tensions and pushed the issue of the use of deadly force against black males by white police officers to the forefront.
Obama sought to bridge those issues with his tribute to the fallen five, which included a former Army Ranger, a Navy veteran and a newlywed starting a second family.
In his speech, Obama asked Americans to find the character to open “our hearts to each other.”
The president, joined by his wife, Michelle, and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, was expected to meet privately with the families of the slain officers as well as the injured to convey the support and gratitude for their service and sacrifice that has been expressed around the country. At least nine other officers and two civilians were injured in the attack.