DALLAS (CNN) — It has to change.
Surely this is either rock bottom or a tipping point, they say.
It shouldn’t have taken the deaths of two black men in Louisiana or Minnesota, or the countless ones before that, they say. And it shouldn’t have taken the gunning down of five white police officers to get the nation here either.
For a group of black men who’ve gathered in a living room outside of Dallas, it’s not about poetic ideas. This is their reality. And they can’t take it anymore.
“I have two sons, one is 20-years-old, one is 17, and I’m afraid for their lives,” Texas pastor Charles Colbert says. “How they are going to be perceived, [and] if they are going to live past 25 years old.”
Derek, a community organizer who asked to be identified only by first name because of his job, brought together these men, whose ages range from 17 to 59. They’re here, at CNN’s request, to listen to the president as he stands at a podium in Dallas, once again a mourner-in-chief.
President Obama’s voice quivers as he implores all sides to drop their biases: for police to picture those they pull over as their sons, for those who encounter police to imagine them as their father.
It’s a scab that’s been ripped open again and again for these black men. The president’s prose on Tuesday is a painful reminder of how they live every day, how they are perceived and how they must act in order to survive.
‘Stay safe out there’
Every time 18-year-old Kenyatta Sewell Jr. leaves his friends, they part with a specific goodbye: “Stay safe out there.”
“Because we never know … it may be the last time you say goodbye to one of your closest friends,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone. His voice doesn’t break, nor does it grow louder.
Sewell says he and his friends don’t talk about police shootings or racial tensions all of the time, but those thoughts are always there. He worries about being victimized for something he’s not involved in. He worries what it would do to his family if something did happen.
“Especially as a black male, and a lot of us being the only children, we have single mothers,” he says. “We know how important we are to each other in the lives of our parents and friends.”
Marco Smith, 38, works overnight hours as an engineer. The server room has to be kept on lower temperatures, so he often puts on a hoodie. But this is a decision he has to think about on a regular basis.
“I go to get something to eat at three in the morning, and somebody’s in the elevator … I scared them because I got the hoodie on. I can see it,” he says.
As they watch Obama on their television screens, these men are revealing their vulnerabilities: “Scared of being killed by a cop,” “scared for my children,” “scared to fail because of the color of my skin.”
One of the biggest concerns for the older men in this room is whether or not the world can change fast enough.
“What scares me the most is my child growing up in a world that really doesn’t value her for who she is,” says Gerry Brown, 37. “Or doesn’t see the value that she brings to society and treats her differently because of it.”
That’s a feeling 18-year-old Antowon Shade knows all too well.
“Nothing is easy for me,” he says.
But he believes the world can change — his mentors in this room have taught him that he can be part of the solution.
‘Change the conversation’
This group isn’t just mourning the black men who have been killed; they too are grieving for the fallen Dallas officers. There doesn’t need to be a line in the sand, they all say. Both sides just need to hear each other.
“We’ve adopted this either-or mentality,” Smith says. “Just because [I] want to acknowledge that there are racial disparities in the criminal justice system, doesn’t mean that it makes me anti-police. Or because I support the police that doesn’t mean I’m anti-black or anti-black matters.”
Pastor Darrell Porter, stands on one side of the room, his hands in his pockets, as he listens to the young men talk about what it’s like being black at school or at work.
Porter, 59, lived in Memphis during the civil rights era. He remembers tanks on the street, the dusk-til-dawn curfew.
“If you came off your porch, you had a white officer or white national guardsman that would do some things to you even if you were a child,” he recalls. “I lived that. This isn’t new. So the question is how do we change the dynamic? How do we change the conversation?”
Porter tells the younger men here that it’s time to move past basic rhetoric. For example, he encourages one of the teens, who is about to leave for college, to become active in a group where he can share his perspective.
“If you want to change the system, you have to be part of the system,” Porter says. “And the way to have your voice heard — you vote. You stand up and speak.”
But outside this emotionally charged room, beyond this day where all eyes are on these issues, after the television cameras turn away… Where will change come from?
It’s about more than race and the police. It’s about economic disparity, reducing dropout rates in school, sending more black men to college and turning them into more productive fathers when the time comes.
Pastor Colbert says Obama’s acknowledgment of some of those very issues is a good start, but the rest of the country has to come together and find those solutions.
“He put it out there,” Colbert says. “Now we have to go fix it.”
“The thing America has to know: If it doesn’t get better it gets worse,” says Derek, the man who brought this group together. For him, the stakes are even higher: He has two teenage sons.
“I realize I can be killed tomorrow,” he says, his voice breaking at the thought. “And they’ve got to carry the torch on for me if it happens.”