WASHINGTON — At the White House last week, DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist who was arrested only days before in Baton Rouge, La., for protesting police violence against African-Americans, had a lengthy list of demands for President Barack Obama.
The president should visit Baton Rouge and other cities where black men have been killed by police officers, appoint special prosecutors to investigate the deaths and use his executive power to force changes in police departments across the country, Mckesson said.
The next day, a distraught Erica Garner, whose father, Eric Garner, was killed in 2014 by a New York City police officer who placed him in a chokehold, accosted Obama after a televised town-hall-style meeting with demands of her own. Why have no police officers been convicted or sent to jail for killing black men, and what was he doing to rid police departments of the tactical military equipment that made community protest routes resemble war zones, she asked.
As Obama responds to the latest in fatal confrontations between police officers and black men — this time followed by lethal attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge on law enforcement officers by black gunmen — he has also confronted a growing list of expectations that young black activists have placed on him.
In private meetings and impromptu conversations with Obama, Black Lives Matter activists and others who share their goals have questioned why a president they see as uniquely aware of racism is not doing more to help them.
It's complicated, Obama tries to explain — a response he acknowledges is accurate and unsatisfying.
"I feel like the black community is not being listened to, including by the president," Garner said in an interview. "We can't expect him to do everything, but he is the leader, and he can point us in the right direction to ensure that we can get justice."
Obama gave his condolences to Garner but said he was not in a position to offer more because it would be seen, he said, as placing his thumb on the scales during an open Justice Department investigation into what happened to her father. As for the military-style equipment used by police forces, the president said, his administration had addressed the issue, a response that Garner later called "a brushoff."
The confrontations highlighted Obama's struggle to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, a diffuse group unlike established civil rights organizations that have deep relationships at the White House and on Capitol Hill.
Obama first invited Black Lives Matter activists to the White House in 2014. Obama has prodded them to focus on solutions.
"The goal of protest isn't just to protest for the sake of protesting," he said at last week's town-hall-style meeting. "The goal of protest is to then get the attention of decision-makers and sit down and say, 'Here's what we would like to see,' and have a negotiation, which over time can actually lead to improvements in the system."
The president, his advisers say, identifies with the protesters' cause — a former community organizer, he spoke at last week's meeting about his experiences of being discriminated against by police officers and others — but as the person who appoints the nation's top law enforcement official, he is equally sensitive to police concerns.
"His empathy isn't only with the movement; it's also with the enormous challenge that law enforcement officers have," said Valerie Jarrett, Obama's senior adviser. "He can feel both perspectives because he is of both perspectives."