I came of age in the late 1960’s. Back then racial tension and protests of the Vietnam war boiled over into what became known as the long hot summers. Demonstrations, riots and cities burning were the common sights of summer in America. Now it seems that here in the U.S., with police killings of black men followed immediately by a sniper attack on police in Dallas, we are on the verge of another such summer. At the very least the issues of police culture and race dynamics confront us with the need to address the issues and not turn away.
The first issue is white privilege, or historic or institutional racism. As Republican Newt Gingrich said today, “If you are normal white American you don’t understand being Black in America.” The fear that black parents and in fact all black people live with on a daily basis, of being literally killed for being in some random place with a broken tail light, cannot really be grasped. For white America to accept and see this requires that white America see its historical culture clearly. That seeing is resisted in all kinds of ways. Yes, white people are killed by police, and black people kill other black people in their neighborhoods – we all have heard the counter arguments. But no average white person who has done nothing wrong fears that when a policeman walks up to their car window for a traffic stop, if they do not respond in exactly the right way, they may be shot and killed. The fear of being killed, without consequences for the killer or even any serious societal interest in seeking justice, haunts the average black person in America daily. It requires an entirely new civil rights movement with the involvement of massive numbers of whites to really take this on.
The second issue is police culture. I recall one college friend and teammate who become a police officer. I met him just two or three years later while visiting his city. I was stunned to discover how angry and bitter he was — toward the citizens he was to serve and protect. To him, the public and in particular the black and brown public had become scum, enemies, thugs who were out to get him if he did not get them first. And this was way back in the innocent 1970’s. He had not seemed this way at all as a college student.
I left that lunch wondering if police training and culture are not a form of brain washing or brain damage – when you are trained to watch the world for all the bad guys and horrible things that might happen, perhaps after a time the whole world will begin to look that way, I thought. I’ve never forgotten that day. When you add in the obvious requirement in police departments to support each other no matter what, even if that means protecting a few bad actors in order to protect the whole, you get a self-reinforcing culture where fear of the other and a siege mentality can dominate. Which brings me to the third issue. Guns.
On the night of the famous Columbine Massacre I had a very vivid dream. (I later wrote about that dream on the early Futurist.com website in a piece called “Its the guns stupid” but the piece was lost in one of the site updates since then.) In the dream I was arguing with someone about the causes and consequences of that mass shooting, and at some point in the dream I was screaming, “Its the guns stupid, its the guns.” That was in 1999, and since then we have basically gone mad for guns in America. Look, we all know that people pull the triggers and thus that people kill. But listen to Heather Digby Parton today explain it very clearly.
…it does occur to me that aside from our usual daily gun carnage in the last few years we’ve had mentally ill people shooting up grade schools and movie theaters, anti-abortion zealots shooting up Planned parenthood clinics, white supremacists shooting up black churches, Muslim extremists shooting up gay nightclubs and now it appears we have had a black militant shooting up police officers.
We’re a culture under stress and our love affair with semi-automatic weapons is making it way too easy for people in the cross-currents to act on their grievances by killing large numbers of people.
The common denominator isn’t the people — they all have different motives. It’s the goddamned guns.
We refuse to eliminate or even regulate semi-automatic weapons, which have been responsible for 65 of 81 mass shootings since 1982 in the U.S. Such a weapon was used yesterday in Dallas. These weapons of mass killing are so effective that they put the lie to the common NRA argument that all that is needed is one good guy with a gun in the vicinity and the mass murderer would be stopped. Yesterday we had literally hundreds of trained good guys with guns right there ready to go, and even they could not stop things before 11 were shot and 5 killed. So that argument should be permanently shelved.
Carrying weapons is not the answer either. Both Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul were put in greater jeopardy because they had guns, rather than the guns protecting them. [There is some dispute about whether Sterling actually had a gun in his pocket.] It is certainly true that the rush to pass open carry laws and make all kinds of weapons more widely available has made police more afraid and more vulnerable. Any police officer walking up to a car has to wonder if the driver might be armed. Combine that justified fear with conscious or unconscious racism and the recipe for disaster is obvious. Its the guns that are the catalyst for fear and shooting first.
What can we do? Join in a new civil rights movement to confront institutional racism. Support strong gun laws. Push for police reform that removes fearful and over reactive officers from the force and that allows for accountability when extrajudicial killings happen.
Love. The same “hot summers” of my youth were highlighted by a summer of love. But deeper than that political leaders of the day, most notably Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy emphasized and called on all people to respond to violence with love. This is a forgotten word today We need a movement and we need political leaders who will stand for love, and justice, and peace, rather than leveraging violence and fear to their own political ends. Watch the RFK speech, above. This is what we need.