Obama defends Black Lives Matter

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President Obama on Thursday delivered a vigorous defense of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been criticized by some for its exclusive focus on African-Americans and aggressive tactics.

The president said Black Lives Matter activists are focusing on problems that exist only in black communities, such as routine police brutality, calling it a “legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.” 

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“The African-American community is not just making this up,” Obama said during a forum on criminal justice reform hosted by The Marshall Project. “It is real, and there is a history behind it and we have to take it seriously.”

Obama pointed out that many critics were quick to blame the Black Lives Matter movement for fomenting anti-police sentiment. But he said it’s true purpose is to raise concerns about issues related to practices like stop-and-frisk and the use of excessive force.

"I think everybody understands ‘all lives matter,’ ” the president said. “Everybody wants strong, effective law enforcement, everybody wants their kids to be safe when they’re walking to school, nobody wants to see police officers, who are doing their job fairly, hurt.”

Obama's comments came amid a push by the White House and bipartisan members of Congress to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system. Obama said he is looking at ways to make the system “smart, just, effective and fair.”

The White House has sought input from members of the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew out of the unrest surrounding police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and other cities around the country.

Activists met with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and other top Obama aides last month to discuss reform proposals, including community policing.

The Black Lives Matter movement has also played an influential role in the 2016 presidential campaign, pressuring Democratic candidates Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonLeslie Jones on debate: Trump 'sounds like a car salesman' Mark Cuban: I went 'rogue' on front-row seat tweet Trump praises Lester Holt after debate MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump: It's not certain Russia hacked DNC Sanders warns: Debate is not ‘entertainment show’ Charlotte requires race discussion Hillary, Democrats refuse to have MORE to address problems plaguing the black community.

But some have criticized the activists for their attention-grabbing tactics, which include street protests and interrupting political candidates on the stump, and argue their focus is divisive.

"Of course all lives matter, and all lives includes black lives," Ben Carson, the only black candidate in the GOP presidential field, said this month on Fox News. "And we have to stop submitting to those who want to divide us into all these special interest groups and start thinking about what works for everybody."

Obama suggested his experience growing up as a black man helps him see eye-to-eye with those who criticize questionable police practices.

“As a young man, there were times when I was driving and I got stopped and I didn't know why,” he said.

But he said it would be unfair to pin the problem on the police, saying the country needs to do more to boost educational and economic opportunities in communities of color.

“If we as a society are willing to tolerate” disadvantaged communities, then express surprise about police tensions, “then we’re passing the buck,” Obama said.

"We have to make sure that all of us own it,” he said.