The memorial service for five Dallas police officers shot to death by a lone gunman left Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin with a sense of hope for the future.
“It was heartwarming. It was a celebration of life,” said Benjamin, who attended the service as part of a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Benjamin is the conference’s second vice president.
Benjamin, speaking this morning at City Hall after an announcement of a $4.1 million homebuyers program for Richland and Lexington counties, praised the memorial service speech given by President Barack Obama, saying it put faces to the names of the officers killed, as well as the two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota whose shootings by police sparked nationwide protests.
“The president, I thought, did a very good job of consoling the families, and for all Americans and people around the world who were listening, of humanizing the folks,” Benjamin said. “These weren’t just five cops. These were five brothers and fathers and sons.”
Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith and Lorne Ahrens were killed when Micah Johnson opened fire near the end of a Dallas protest of the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. Johnson was killed when officers attached explosives to a bomb robot and detonated it near him.
“(Obama) talked about the losses in Louisiana and Minnesota and humanized those men as well,” Benjamin said. “He really just went the extra mile to help us realize we’re all in this together and that we have to celebrate our peace officers and the difficult jobs that they do. We have to start spending a lot more time celebrating love and compassion and recognizing how precious human life is, and human dignity.”
Benjamin said he left the Dallas memorial optimistic that the racial rift exposed by recent events can be repaired.
“I’ve always seen the American glass as half-full,” Benjamin said. “I know the people I interact with and interface with every day. It’s an incredibly diverse group of people, and they’re genuinely good people. Our job is to not allow ourselves to be defined by the fringes.
“That was a peaceful protest in Dallas, being monitored by one of the best police departments in the country doing a great job making sure that these protesters’ constitutional rights were protected. Everything was going well until one madman decided that he wanted to exercise his right to hate and kill people. We lose track of the fact that 99.9% of the people there were doing good things. One person decided that he wanted to destroy it. We can’t allow ourselves to be defined by that. We’re better than that.”
A largely peaceful protest took place in Columbia on Sunday night, with around 800 demonstrators gathering at the Statehouse and marching through downtown, down Elmwood Avenue and onto Interstate 126. The S.C. Department of Transportation closed the interstate for about an hour because of safety concerns before the protesters made their way back to the Statehouse after 10 p.m.
No arrests were made, though Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott later said multiple gangs disrupted the event around 9 p.m., instigating verbal and physical altercations.
“Our police department, very much like the Dallas PD, is in the vanguard of ensuring that we have smart, thoughtful community policing,” Benjamin said. “We’re investing in training for our officers so they’re prepared for a radically changing world. We’re recruiting good officers and we’re presenting to the public a very transparent and accountable police department, recognizing that the only way that the police can do their job and keep the community safe is if they enjoy strong public trust.
“Without public trust, no police department can do its job and do it well. What we saw the other night here in Columbia was a manifestation of years of continued work in building public trust.”
In his Dallas speech, Obama said: “I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week. … All of it’s left us wounded and angry and hurt.”
“This is a long march, so we’re going to have to continue working together,” Benjamin said. “We’re going to have to start talking a lot more about compassion, about love and empathy, if we’re going to make it through this together.”