WASHINGTON -- Defending the Black Lives Matter movement, President Barack Obama said Thursday the protests are giving voice to a problem happening only in African-American communities, adding, "We, as a society, particularly given our history, have to take this seriously."
Mr. Obama said the movement, which sprung up after the deaths of unarmed black men in Florida, Missouri and elsewhere, quickly came to be viewed as being opposed to police and suggesting that other people's lives don't matter. Opponents have countered that "all lives matter."
The nationwide "Black Lives Matter" movement that formed after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri has sought sweeping reforms of policing. Related protests erupted in Texas recently after a 28-year-old Chicago-area black woman, Sandra Bland, was found dead in a county jail about 50 miles northwest of Houston three days after her arrest on a traffic violation. Texas authorities said she committed suicide but her family is skeptical of that.
At the conclusion of a White House forum on criminal justice, the president said he wanted to make a final point about the nexus of race and the criminal justice system before launching into his defense of the movement.
"I think everybody understands all lives matter," Mr. Obama said. "I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' was not because they were suggesting nobody else's lives matter. Rather, what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that's happening in the African-American community that's not happening in other communities.
"And that is a legitimate issue that we've got to address."
Mr. Obama paired his defense of the Black Lives Matter movement with praise for police and other law enforcement officials. Some police groups have been unhappy with the president's response to the deaths of unarmed black people. The president lately seems to be making the extra effort to publicly praise police officers for willingly taking on a dangerous assignment.
He did so while participating in a forum on drug abuse Wednesday in Charleston, West Virginia, and next week he's scheduled to address the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
At the White House, Mr. Obama said there are specific concerns about whether blacks in certain areas are treated unfairly or are more frequently subjected to excessive force by police.
But the president said people should also "understand the overwhelming majority of law enforcement's doing the right thing and wants to do the right thing" and "recognize that police officers have a really tough job and we're sending them into really tough neighborhoods that sometimes are really dangerous and they've got to make split-second decisions."
He said people shouldn't be "too sanctimonious" about situations that can sometimes be ambiguous.
"But having said all that, we as a society, particularly given our history, have to take this seriously," Mr. Obama said. "And one of the ways of avoiding the politics of this and losing the moment is everybody just stepping back for a second and understanding that the African-American community is not just making this up."
"It's not just something being politicized. It's real and there's a history behind it and we have to take it seriously," he said.
In a separate development, the Black Lives Matter organization on Thursday rejected a town hall-style forum it had been offered by the Democratic National Committee, in lieu of a sanctioned debate it had requested. The group said a town hall wouldn't "sufficiently respond to the concerns raised by our members." The DNC said it has approved only six debates, and all have been scheduled.