Black and Blue
Things fall apart; The center cannot hold
— WB Yeats
I’ve waited a couple days to comment on the unconscionable murder of police officers in Dallas last Thursday night, and the apparently unjustified police killings of two black men in the days proceeding it, to allow for a cooling of passions and a bit of perspective.
Unfortunately too few of us seem willing to take this course. Once again, we’ve allowed tragedy to become another opportunity for Americans to retreat to their respective corners — in this case Team Black and Team Blue – and begin attacking each other. But real flesh and blood people are dead, people with hopes and dreams, families, and others who loved them.
Before we get to the raw politics of the thing, therefore, let’s pause for a moment to remember the five brave officers cut down in cold blood by a madman: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarippa.
At the same time, we cannot forget the two black men who died because other police were not as brave and dedicated, but untrained, unprofessional, panicky, or, let’s say it, quite possibly racist: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
The cold blooded murders in Dallas were a vicious crime committed by a single individual, either deranged or evil or both. Nothing can justify those murders. But that doesn’t invalidate the complaints that have been raised about police misconduct and racial profiling.
Ironically, Dallas has one of the nation’s best police forces when it comes to reducing police brutality and building trust in the community. But as the killings of Sterling and Castile appear to show, not every police force is as well trained, and not every policeman is as honorable as those who were just murdered.
I’ve heard a number of commentators, in the news, and on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, say that we should always stand up for and support the police. No, we shouldn’t. We should stand up and support them when they do the right thing, as so many of them so often do at great personal risk, but when they do the wrong thing, we should be equally quick to condemn them and demand action.
I’ve also seen and heard a lot of criticism of Black Lives Matter. Some have gone so far as to call BLM a “terrorist group.” Get a grip. Does BLM sometimes use intemperate – even irresponsible — language. Absolutely. But unless you are prepared to be equally quick to denounce every Right-to-Lifer who refers to abortion providers as “murderers,” or those on both left and right who call their opponents “traitors,” you have little room to talk. You want intemperate or irresponsible speech? I give you Donald Trump.
More important than language is the issue that BLM has brought to the forefront. Race is still the great dividing line in America. We have come a long way in this country, but the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow still hangs over us. Nor have we achieved full equality yet. In a thousand ways, large and small, African-Americans go through life at a disadvantage. They will experience things from a perspective that I (and most of you, my readers) never will. And if you don’t believe that, your privilege is clearly showing.
We won’t know for certain what happened in the Sterling and Castile cases until a final investigation has been conducted. Initial reports can be wrong (recall Michael Brown). But clearly something is wrong.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile would almost certainly be alive today if they were white. So would Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, and so many, many others.
And please don’t try to excuse this by talking about black on black crime. Yes, crime rates in the inner city, fueled in part by our war on drugs, are frighteningly high. A black man is far more likely to be killed by another black man than by a police officer. But the killing of an innocent man by a police officer is far worse than other killings because the police act under the color of authority. Police represent us. We pay their salaries. We give them a gun and a badge. We give them the legal authority to use force. When they gun down an unarmed black man, there is a splash back on us.
I don’t have a laundry list of policy prescriptions to deal with all of this right now. Sure there are things we can do — more community policing, training in de-escalation, ending the Godforsaken war on drug, for example. And we should realize that every time we pass a new law, make something else illegal, and give more power to the government, we are creating the potential for the next deadly confrontation.
But this really isn’t the time for debating policy. Perhaps what we really need to do now – right this moment- is simply to be kind to each other. We could do worse.
And with that in mind, I leave you with this: