Barack Obama is to abandon a European visit and travel to the site of the killing of five police officers in Texas, in a new effort to ease tensions between law enforcement and African Americans that have been at breaking point for almost two years.
Obama will head early next week to Dallas, a city reeling from the deadliest day for American police since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the White House said, as protests against the fatal shootings of black men by officers continued across the country.
He will also try to “bring people together to support our police officers and communities, and find common ground by discussing policy ideas for addressing the persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system,” said his press secretary, Josh Earnest.
Obama’s decision was announced as demonstrations against the use of excessive force by police spread again on Friday night to cities such as Baltimore, Atlanta and Philadelphia. Thousands of protesters marched and blocked traffic on highways to draw fresh attention to what has become a new civil rights movement.
Cutting short a planned tour of Spain, the first black US president will return to a nation whose stark divide on race was brought to the fore once again by the assassination of five policemen in Dallas by a black military veteran said to have been targeting white people.
They were the first deaths of law enforcement around demonstrations over the use of force by police since the intense unrest sparked by the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014.
Conservatives were quick to accuse Obama of having blood on his hands for delivering remarks hours before the Dallas shootings in which he urged white Americans to take seriously the Black Lives Matter protest movement’s grievances over racism in the criminal justice system.
He was sharply criticized by Heather Mac Donald, an influential right-wing author who is a leading proponent of the so-called “Ferguson effect”, which holds that crime has spiked since the unrest in Missouri because frontline police officers have been pushed into a retreat.
Accusing Obama of “attacking the very foundation of civilization” by giving credibility to Black Lives Matter, Mac Donald told the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh the president had “lied to the nation” and “we see the results”, apparently referring to the Dallas shootings.
Steve King, a Republican congressman for Iowa, even claimed the Dallas shootings were rooted in a seven-year-old row over race prompted when Obama said a white officer “acted stupidly” by arresting a black Harvard academic trying to gain entry to his own home.
Obama had in fact struck a careful balance, stressing that despite legitimate concerns, Americans should have an “extraordinary appreciation and respect for the vast majority of police officers”, describing their job as dangerous and difficult. He spoke again on Friday after the Dallas shootings to call the attack “vicious, calculated and despicable”.
The reaction, however, reflected a consistently sharp divide on the subject among Americans. A Pew poll last month found 84% of black Americans believe police treat blacks unfairly, compared with 50% of white respondents. While more than two-thirds of African Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, a minority of white people – and just 20% of Republicans – feel the same way.
The president’s comments were prompted by fresh anger over the fatal shootings by police of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Both deaths were partially captured on mobile phone video footage that was widely shared online, amplifying public concern.
Authorities in Dallas said that Micah Johnson, the deceased gunman, had been “upset” by the shootings in recent days of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile near St Paul. Sterling was shot while pinned down by officers during a struggle in which a pistol remained in his pocket. Castile was shot while reaching for his identification documents after warning the officer he was legally carrying a firearm, his girlfriend said.
Johnson, a 25-year-old army reservist who served in Afghanistan, was killed by a bomb-carrying police robot after lengthy negotiations in which he articulated anger at the police shootings and said “he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers”.
From a perch at a parking garage, he had shot dead officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, and wounded seven others. He used an AR-15 rifle similar to that used in past high-profile mass shootings such as the massacre of primary school pupils in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in December 2012.
Those who lived among Johnson and his family expressed astonishment at his involvement. “I would have never believed that someone from this neighborhood could have had feelings like that,” said Robert Olsovsky, 55, who lives close to the large detached house where Johnson resided with his mother.
Yet this well-maintained modern family home, with a basketball hoop in the back yard next door and children playing in an adjacent street as media and law enforcement thronged the area, apparently harbored what police described as an arsenal of “bomb-making materials, ballistic vests, rifles, ammunition, and a personal journal of combat tactics”.
Law enforcement officials said late on Friday that Johnson appeared to have acted alone. Three other suspects had been held in custody, but authorities in Dallas had provided mixed signals about their importance to the investigation, and their status remained unclear.
As it entered the weekend the city remained in a shocked state of mourning. Candles were laid out on concrete bollards in front of the Dallas police headquarters and Stars and Stripes stickers sat in a box waiting to be taken. An inscription scribbled on the box in cursive read: “7-7-2016, Remember our fallen heroes; honor our DPD heroes still among us.”
The streets surrounding El Centro community college, from which Johnson apparently mounted his attack, remained cordoned off, with police stationed along nearby roads on Friday night. FBI agents wearing blue shoe covers worked the area as investigators tried to judge bullet trajectories.
Yellow evidence-markers dotted the ground in Rosa Parks plaza in front of a statue of the civil rights activist and a fountain with words from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech etched into a stone behind the flowing water: “Until justice rolls down / like waters / and righteousness / like a mighty stream.”
Belo Garden park, where Thursday’s march had started, was quiet save for a couple of people sitting on benches. A Salvation Army disaster services food truck was parked close by. On the grass lay a poster with a broken heart drawing and the words “Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, no justice, no peace”.
Zabrian Jordan, a 34-year-old parking attendant, waited by the cordon for police to let him recover his truck from a parking lot near the core of the carnage. He had taken part in the march. “It was like a surreal moment,” he said. “I hear shots all the time where I’m from [north Dallas]. When I heard multiple, it’s like ‘oh no, it’s something’. And everybody was just like, panic stations.”
In the evening, as darkness fell, two dozen mostly white young people from an Oklahoma church, who happened to be visiting the city and wanted to respond to the tragedy, gathered in front of the bus station to pray and sing gospel music. “Storm is passing over, the storm is passing over, hallelujah,” they chorused. “Pray good things are yet to come, pray good things are about to be done.”
A couple of meters away, a young black man walked on to light rail tracks and stood provocatively in front of two police officers, daring them to make a move as they watched passively, hands by their sides.
“Come back, they’ll kill you,” screamed a black woman on the sidewalk. “They gonna kill you. He’s got his hand on his gun! He’s gonna drop you baby!” Eventually his friends persuaded him to move away.