In the Wake of Killings


In the wake of killings of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, and of five police officers, with seven more injured, in Dallas, one feels compelled to speak where words cannot possibly be adequate. Silence comes too near de facto complicity in something with which one does not wish to be complicit, while speech risks sound and fury signifying nothing.

That race is a factor in police killings of blacks and Latinos is too well documented to dispute, much less deny, though some still do. Police panic appears to be another common factor in the Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights incidents, raising questions about evaluation and screening of people who want to be police officers, training, accountability, and the culture of police departments. The Dallas attack was of a different nature, an action taken with calculated and deliberate intent. The consequences for victims and suffering of families are the same in the three incidents.

Police officers have reason to believe that those they encounter will be armed and all too willing to put the weapon to the use for which it is designed. Blacks, young black men in particular, have reason to fear the police. Our culture glorifies competition and, all too often, confrontation. There is a macho element common to some individuals drawn to a police or military career and to some who live in difficult circumstances where life is a struggle for survival and violence is commonplace. For those coarsened by daily encounters that most of us are hard-pressed to imagine, civility is not likely to be an instinctive response.

We expect officers to be trained to de-escalate and defuse confrontational situations, trained to make the attempt, at any rate. We may be less inclined to acknowledge that an officer could make all the right moves, a young black man could make all the correct responses, and still things can come to a bad end in a tense situation where each sees the other as a threat. In truth, police officers do not always make the right moves. People sometimes respond to authority with ill-advised aggression. Not all police officers are paragons of virtue. Not every person the police encounter is on the side of the angels.

The cycle is familiar. A terrible event occurs, bearing awful echoes of past events, freighted with baggage of race, religion, terrorism, xenophobia, firearms. An anguished and frustrated Barak Obama speaks movingly and eloquently. Critics accuse him of politicizing the tragedy when he mentions that guns played a part, of dividing us when he mentions that race had something to do with it, of being soft on terrorism, or the more absurd accusation that he is in league with terrorists, when he refuses to employ code words that truly are divisive and do harm to our cause. Black Lives Matter and allied groups organize demonstrations. Professional pundits and self-styled experts dripping with gravitas offer opinions, lay blame, and put forward proposals. People such as I pen stuff such as this. Etc. After a while other affairs claim our attention, until the next time.

Van Jones and Newt Gingrich discussed last week's events and related issues on July 8 in a video posted on Jones's Facebook page (which can be viewed without logging into Facebook). By way of background, Jones is the founder of Dream Corps Unlimited and a regular CNN contributor. Formerly he was President Obama's Special Advisor for Green Jobs and distinguished visiting fellow at Princeton University. Gingrich is the well-known former Speaker of the House during the Bill Clinton administration and conservative firebrand who is bandied about as a possible running mate for Donald Trump.

Both men speak, as does Obama, of common ground. Jones notes that he and Gingrich are on many issues divided in the head, the specific policies they advocate, but united in the heart because they both want better lives for people. Gingrich, to his credit and my surprise, is right on the mark in his comments. He states bluntly that

It is more dangerous to be black in America. It is more dangerous in that they are substantially more likely to end up in a situation where the police don't respect you and you could easily get killed. And sometimes for whites it difficult to appreciate how real that is and how it's an everyday danger.

...if you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don't understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.

Gingrich also reminds us that for a police officer, "Every time you walk up to a car you could be killed. Every time you go into a building where there's a robbery you can be killed," to which Jones adds that the police and the black community have common ground here. Members of both groups feel they have a target on their backs.

Jones observes that after events like those of last week the spotlight tends to be on the issue of consequences, discipline, criminal charges for police who have done the wrong thing, while ignoring the front end of the process, such as aggressively screening out sociopaths and others who should never be hired as police officers in the first place. He calls on us to understand the fear and the pain on both sides, to do some soul searching if we cried over fallen young black men but not for police officers, or if we mourned slain police officers but not the young men who died in Louisiana and Minnesota. "When you're one country and you're one people, you cry at every funeral."

There is no ready-made solution that will make it all better today, tomorrow, or next year. Whatever is to be done, and many things need to be done, must come from all sides, directions, angles, touching on race, policing, education, social and economic policy, and guns. I am convinced that gun regulation and interpretation of the Second Amendment must be part of the conversation. Gun rights absolutists say that the aftermath of events such as those of last week is not the time for it. If not now, when?

We can try to be better than we have been.

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David Matthews

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