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Inside Obama’s radical experiment in national reconciliation

"The roots of the problems we saw this week date back, not just decades, date back centuries," Obama said. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Carolyn Kaster/Reuters)

It started with the seating.

When the 33 invited participants to Wednesday’s “White House Convening on Building Community Trust” filed into the conference room in the cavernous and ornate Eisenhower Executive Office Building, they discovered they would be placed next to improbable seatmates.

Rashad Robinson, a black political activist, had Pittsburgh's police chief, Cameron McLay, on one side of him and Anaheim, Calif., Mayor Tom Tait on the other. Fraternal Order of Police Executive Director James O. Pasco was placed between NAACP President Cornell Brooks and Harvard University economics professor Roland Fryer, who just published an analysis on racial disparities in aspects of law enforcement.

It was diversity “by design,” as Obama later told reporters, an unorthodox, four-hour experiment in policymaking through the kind of emotional exchanges that are more often associated with therapeutic encounter sessions than bureaucratic seminars. And according to interviews with about a third of those who participated, it worked.

“There’s not a lot of places and spaces for this kind of conversation,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, one of the participants. He added that “the right people were there” to begin to tackle the challenge of reexamining how policing is done and how protesters should engage with law enforcement. “I hope it kind of strengthened their guts for the task that lies ahead.”

White House officials scrambled to assemble the group in the wake of incidents in Baton Rouge and a St. Paul, Minn., suburb, where two African American men were fatally shot by police, and in Dallas, where five police officers safeguarding a protest in response to those shootings were slain by a gunman.

Initially, the gathering was fairly formal. Obama presided over the meeting and encouraged the men and women in the room to share their ideas.

“After about an hour,” recalled J.B. Jennings, a Republican who serves as minority leader of the Maryland Senate, “people got comfortable, and people began to speak their mind and say what they really felt.”

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Participants described a wide-ranging, free-flowing conversation facilitated by Obama himself, who began by taking off his suit jacket and rolling up his shirt sleeves.

“The president lived up to his reputation as a former law professor,” the NAACP's Brooks noted after the meeting. “He spent quite a bit of time listening, probing and guiding the discussion, occasionally deploying the Socratic method to get some of the day’s best responses.”

Attendees, even some who had been skeptical of the utility of such a meeting, described an unsparingly frank discussion in which police, protesters, academics and the president debated many of the disagreements playing out across the nation.

Chris Coleman, mayor of St. Paul, which has experienced contentious rallies since a police officer shot and killed Philando Castile earlier this month in nearby Falcon Heights, called the actions of some protesters “disgraceful.” Mica Grimm, an activist with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis who was also in the room, took issue with the phrase; Coleman countered that some protesters had dropped concrete blocks on his city’s officers.

“I responded by telling him that the protests aren’t going to stop until we see actual change,” Grimm recalled later. “And that begins with seeing an officer held accountable for killing somebody.”

As Coleman and Grimm went back and forth, one of the other police chiefs in the room slipped a note of support to Grimm, and then the Rev. Al Sharpton interjected.

“We really need to be talking about why people are protesting instead of being upset with protesters,” said Sharpton, the longtime, and at times controversial, civil rights activist, redirecting the conversation.

Bryan Stevenson, who co-founded the Equal Justice Initiative and sat on the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, made a point of speaking to law enforcement representatives about the mass shooting that rattled officers across the country.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Stevenson told them, Garcetti recalled. “I’m sorry for what happened.”

Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis, who is African American and whose husband is biracial, recounted watching the nights of unrest and protest in Baton Rouge on television in her home with her extended family, including her 86-year-old mother-in-law, who is white. As they watched the news coverage, she said, her mother-in-law suddenly became aware of the possible dangers that her own son had faced for years.

“For the first time, she was concerned whether or not her black son would make it home. She had never considered before that the police could harass or kill him,” Dianis recalled after the meeting. “All week, she’s been asking me over and over about where my husband is and if he’s made it home safely each night.”

Several others in the meeting recounted the anecdote as among the most moving.

“That kind of thing is foreign to me, if you will,” said Pasco, of the Fraternal Order of Police, adding that the accounts he heard of racial profiling Wednesday took him aback.

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Pasco was not ready to cede ground on every front: When Robinson, the activist who is also executive director of Color of Change, challenged him to call out “bad cops” to protect the reputation of “good cops,” he countered that the union was not the one that made hiring decisions, and was obligated to defend its members to ensure that they were not wrongfully fired or convicted.

And when Brooks went on the offensive, telling his seatmate, “I’m going to call out the unions, Jim,” Pasco jokingly replied as an aside: “I was a heartbeat away from turning off the mic on you.”

When it was his turn to speak, Terry Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Wellesley, Mass., police chief, agreed with the activists that departments and police leaders need to be more willing to call out bad cops and speak out after bad shootings.

“There are law enforcement officers who are biased, but law enforcement clearly has a hard time saying that,” Cunningham recalled saying. “It’s no different than any other profession. And it’s a nonstarter for everyone else in the room if we don’t acknowledge the fact that we have people who are biased.”

His words, and similar ones from several other police chiefs in the room, struck several activists there as a major breakthrough.

“It was important to hear chiefs of police say they understand why communities of color are not only distrustful but rightfully frustrated and angry when we witness a lack of accountability,” said Brittany Packnett, a St. Louis-based activist and educator who served on Obama’s policing task force.

The group delved into policy details at times: Fryer spoke of how incomplete many departments’ records are on clashes between police and civilians, and the fact that it took him and his students 45 minutes to convert each record they examined into one that could be properly coded and categorized in a database.

Activists pressed for federal officials to withhold money from departments under investigation for misconduct, and several people suggested that a more standard accreditation process for police departments and a national code of conduct for the use of force could avert tragic incidents.

Although Obama is known for his tendency to lecture at times, the other people in the room did much of the talking.

Campaign Zero co-founder DeRay Mckesson had a long list of pointers and demands for the president. The activist praised the fact that Obama’s language on protesters had “come a long way,” but he told him to stop chastising them for not voting in elections and to quit using the term “thugs” to describe people after nights when protests turn violent. Mckesson also said Obama should instruct the FBI to stop visiting activists’ homes.

Activists in Cleveland, San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis and St. Louis have told The Washington Post that they have been visited by FBI agents in recent days, which the activists consider an intimidation tactic. The activist noted that while the president was quick to go to Dallas after the five police officers were killed, Obama did not visit Baton Rouge or Falcon Heights and, two years after black teen Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white officer, has not been to Ferguson, Mo.

“Well, I’m glad you have a long list for me,” the president replied, according to one participant. Obama pointed out that he could not “be everywhere,” especially in places where the Justice Department had an ongoing investigation of police misconduct.

And Obama, according to two attendees, went on to note that the Justice Department can’t investigate every police shooting or allegation of misconduct.

“We have to come up with another way,” Obama said of accountability, according to two attendees.

At that point, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka interjected to call for federal legislation that would require an independent investigation into any police shooting or killing, a proposal that prompted nods across much of the room.

Speaking to reporters later, Obama said the problems the group grapples with are not “going to be solved overnight … but what we can do is to set up the kinds of respectful conversations that we've had here — not just in Washington, but around the country — so that we institutionalize a process of continually getting better, and holding ourselves accountable, and holding ourselves responsible for getting better.”

Attendees said Obama ended the meeting by challenging them to focus their efforts on five specific areas: ensuring fair and impartial investigations into police use of force and misconduct; identifying best practices at the local level; providing federal financial incentives for the broad implementation of those best practices; identifying, collecting and analyzing vital criminal-justice data; and ensuring that these efforts are sustainable in the long term — even beyond the Obama presidency.

Multiple attendees said they think it is likely that Obama will reconvene his policing task force and launch a town hall series, perhaps spearheaded by the Justice Department, in cities that have had unrest over police killings and where police have identified best practices and implemented reforms.

Garcetti, who has already been holding separate meetings with rappers and law enforcement in Los Angeles, said he was going to figure out how to bring activists and police officers into the same room. Robinson said his political advocacy now has “got to get people raising their voices on this” so that federal officials will be able to pressure departments to reform. And Pasco said his group will push for requiring law enforcement to gather data on assaults of civilians, as long as “there’s mandatory data collection of assaults on officers.”

As the meeting concluded, Obama turned to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) and the state's police superintendent, Mike Edmonson, to make a request on behalf of Mckesson — who, according to attendees of the two meetings between the president and the young activist, have a warm if pointed rapport.

Earlier in the session, Mckesson had recounted his arrest this past weekend while demonstrating in Baton Rouge, noting that he had been held in custody for more than 18 hours and that police officials still had not returned all of his belongings, including his backpack.

“We should get DeRay his backpack back,” the president said to the Louisiana officials, prompting a round of laughter around the room.

“I mean, I can get you a new book bag,” Obama said, turning to Mckesson. “But I have a feeling you want your bookbag back, huh?”

With a smile, Mckesson replied: “Yes, I would like that.”