Donald Trump Spoke to the Brother of George Floyd. Barack Obama Spoke to the Families of Sandy Hook

Obama

On Dec. 16, 2012, two days after the shootings at Newtown, President Obama met with victims’ families, including the siblings and cousins of Emilie Parker, one of the 20 children who died that day. PETE SOUZA / WIKIMEDIA

The difference between Obama and Trump hit me hard today.

Here is George Floyd’s brother Philonese Floyd’s phone conversation with Donald Trump. It starts at the 1:40 minute mark:

“Phew. It was so fast. He didn’t even give me the opportunity to even speak. It was hard. I was trying to talk to him but he just kept pushing me off like, ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about.’ I just told him I want justice.”

Below is an account of Barack Obama’s face-to-face meetings with the families who lost their children during the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. It comes from Joshua DuBois, the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama’s first term. It appears in DuBois’s The President’s Devotional:

I left early to help the advance team—the hardworking folks who handle logistics for every event—set things up, and I arrived at the local high school where the meetings and memorial service would take place. We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, two or three families to a classroom, placing water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn’t know how to prepare; it was the best we could think of.

The families came in and gathered together, room by room. Many struggled to offer a weak smile when we whispered, “The president will be here soon.” A few were visibly angry—so understandable that it barely needs to be said—and were looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Mostly they sat in silence.

I went downstairs to greet President Obama when he arrived, and I provided an overview of the situation. “Two families per classroom . . . The first is . . . and their child was . . . The second is . . . and their child was . . . We’ll tell you the rest as you go.”

The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.

Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.

The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.

And the funny thing is–President Obama has never spoken about these meetings. Yes, he addressed the shooting in Newtown and gun violence in general. In face, he was nearly silent on Air Force Once as we rode back to Washington, and has said very little about his time with these families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency, quiet hours in solemn classrooms, extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself–never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations, or opening them up to public view.

Almost anyone could have done what Trump did. He is like “Mr. Neo-Angular” in C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, the “pale” steward (clergyman) who tells the traveler John: “I am not kind at all…I am doing my duty. My ethics are based on dogma, not on feeling.” And, the more I think of it, I am not even sure Trump reaches the ethical standard of Mr. Neo-Angular. I am probably giving the president too much credit.

What Obama did at Sandy Hook required something much deeper. It required courage, empathy, and love. On that day, the president was an agent of God.

Out of the Zoo: When Historians Ask “Why”

 

march for our lives

Some friends and I participated in a “March for our lives” in Kalamazoo back in March 2018.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her gun violence and her current research paper.  –JF

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I prefer not to think about my middle school years. I had braces, acne, and wore virtually the same outfit every day of the week. A self-proclaimed tomboy with a secret girly side, a goody-two-shoes who still wanted to be seen as “cool,” I still had a lot of things to figure out. I guess there were some good things that happened to me in middle school too– I got to learn history from Mr. Bussies, one of my favorite teachers of all time, and started what would become a six year track and field career. But all this being said, there’s no denying that middle school was a dark time.

At any rate, my middle school years were also dark for another, more serious reason. I was in seventh grade when a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut sent the nation reeling. I had always been pretty aware of current events growing up–I would hear about major hurricanes and earthquakes as they occurred, and I even knew about the movie theater shooting that took place in Colorado earlier that year–but I had never heard about anything like this. I remember my family turning on the news to find it plastered with reports of twenty-seven lives lost, flashing images of an elementary school surrounded by flashing police lights and a maze of crime scene tape. The next day in my current events class we learned more about the tragedy and discussed it together. All I remember thinking was why? Why would someone kill so many innocent people? Why could something like this happen? Why an elementary school of all places? 

Fast forward half a century into 2018. Yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, shocked and outraged students, teachers, and lawmakers around the country. Students organized walk outs and marches and cried out for reform. Even then, six years later, we still asked why. Why would someone do this? Why did it happen again? Why are we still fighting this battle?

As it turns out, we’ve been fighting this battle for much longer than I originally thought. I came across the topic of school violence yet again when mulling over potential subjects for my Historical Methods (HIST 258) research paper this semester. After nixing a few ideas for the essay, I thought it might be beneficial for me, a future teacher, to research something related to education. After a few minutes of brainstorming and Google searching, I discovered that one of the first major incidents of school violence not only took place in Michigan, my home state, but it occurred nearly a century ago, in 1927. This tragedy, a bombing at Bath Consolidated School, claimed 44 lives–as much as Sandy Hook and Parkland combined.

I’ve only just begun researching the Bath tragedy. Even so I find myself asking the same question I did back in 2018 and 2012: Why? However as I continue to study the tragedy, and as I learn more about the discipline of history, I am reminded there is rarely a simple answer to such a question. There is rarely a simple answer to any historical question for that matter. People don’t often fit into the neat little boxes we try to cram them into–even mass murderers, especially mass murderers, are far more complex than that. We try to decipher causes, try to put ourselves in century-old shoes, but our undertaking always turns out to be more ambitious than we planned. That’s why studying history is so hard sometimes. When we ask why, we tend to want a simple, neat answer that we can easily turn into some groundbreaking discovery or concise thesis statement. But what we have to learn to accept is the fact that the past is messy. People are messy. So it is up to us to decide whether or not we want to dive right into the mess.

Barack Obama in the Wake of Sandy Hook

obama-sandy

This, apparently, is the moment Obama first learned about the Sandy Hook shootings

I’m sure some of you have seen this, but I just came across it today.  This passage, which appeared on the website Vox Populi, comes from Joshua Dubois’s The Presidents’ Devotional.

Dubois served as head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama administration:

I left early to help the advance team—the hardworking folks who handle logistics for every event—set things up, and I arrived at the local high school where the meetings and memorial service would take place. We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, two or three families to a classroom, placing water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn’t know how to prepare; it was the best we could think of.

The families came in and gathered together, room by room. Many struggled to offer a weak smile when we whispered, “The president will be here soon.” A few were visibly angry—so understandable that it barely needs to be said—and were looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Mostly they sat in silence.

I went downstairs to greet President Obama when he arrived, and I provided an overview of the situation. “Two families per classroom . . . The first is . . . and their child was . . . The second is . . . and their child was . . . We’ll tell you the rest as you go.”

The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.

Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.

The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.