“It’s clear that those images shocked the conscience of a nation,” Pence responded to the group at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, where Jackson is pastor. “We have no tolerance for violence against an individual in this country or tolerance for police brutality, and no tolerance for rioting in the streets or looting and destruction of property or the claiming the innocent lives, including the lives of law enforcement.”
Derrick McCoy, who works for the evangelical organization Compassion International, said he has two sons who are close to the age of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old who was fatally shot in Georgia. He warns his sons that they cannot go everywhere, he said, and that they need to check in with him.
Nonetheless, McCoy said, he tries not to have “a lens of bitterness.” He called for “criminal justice reform 2.0” and shared a message with Pence that he said he would have given to Trump if they were together: What matters is not as much what you say, as how you say it.
“America is listening, and we have to have the right tone,” he said.
Pence’s staff arranged the “listening session” earlier this week. Jackson, 67, a rare Trump supporter in the majority black, Democratic stronghold of Prince George’s County, said he wanted to fill the sanctuary, which seats about 1,200. But due to restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, he said, Friday’s meeting was small.
He and Pence grinned as they greeted each other before sitting in a circle with eight other men and one woman.
“We are here with ears to hear,” Pence told Jackson as they shook hands. “We really believe this is a moment.”
Pence spoke of Floyd’s death as a “tragedy” that will require the nation to find “healing.”
Part of the session was open to reporters, while part was private. With the cameras rolling, Damian Cooke, a substance abuse professional, told Pence he was leery of speaking because he did not want to be part of an event that was “an opportunity to garner votes or a photo op.”
He said there is a division in the country — with the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies on one side, and the Trump administration and Make America Great Again supporters on the other.
“It shouldn’t be that way,” Cooke said. “But the thing is, we’re not listening to each other.”
Earl Ettienne, a professor at Howard University’s College of Pharmacy, called on Pence to increase funding for historically blacks colleges and universities like Howard, with the knowledge that the country did not get to this point overnight.
“We hear the expression all the time, ‘pull yourselves up by the bootstraps’ — many of these guys don’t have boots,” he said.
Pence also heard from the owners of Grubb’s Pharmacy in the District, who said their stores were looted this past week.
The vice president said the Trump administration’s goals include increasing economic opportunity for black Americans and expanding school choice by offering families scholarships to attend charter schools.
Jackson has spent years preaching about conservative causes, including against same-sex marriage ballot initiatives. In 2015, he said, he went through a “paradigm shift” after the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He attended marches in Ferguson and attempted to gather black and white clergy for a meeting with the Rev. T.D. Jakes in Dallas. Jackson said he has not been involved in the protests over Floyd’s death but would consider joining, and wants to create town hall gatherings to discuss systemic issues facing people of color.
The pastor, who has been involved in previous criminal justice reform efforts by Trump, said the administration should withhold federal funds from police forces with bad track records, reprogram how police officers do their job and educate Americans on civic engagement. He also said that some conservative leaders have minimized the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police.
“Just saying it’s a small minority is not an excuse,” he said. “Comparing it with deaths of people in Chicago on a weekend is not really apples to apples.”
Jackson said he would not criticize Trump on any of his recent actions or responses to the protests. When Trump staged a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church earlier this week after federal police units forcibly cleared protesters from the area, Jackson said, that was the president’s attempt to show his stance on religious liberty and a desire to keep the church safe.
“I feel like blacks feel like they’ve been misused by the culture, Democrat and Republican, black, white and every other group has misused them,” he said. “This is a deep wound in the soul of African Americans.”