Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Lorne Ahrens. Michael Krol. Michael Smith. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. Seven men shot and killed last week. Seven senseless deaths, all speaking in one way or another to the racism laced through relations between African-Americans and the police. We have to be blind not to see it. Stone-hearted not to feel the tragedy of it.
There was a ghastly symmetry to the events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas. Two black men killed after having been stopped, respectively, by the police for selling CD’s outside a convenience store and for having a broken tail light. Five cops, a majority white, shot and killed while defending a crowd protesting the senselessness of the Baton Rouge and Minneapolis shootings – in Dallas of all places, esteemed for the excellence of its community/police relations. The world, our world, seems coming apart at the seams. Riven by centuries-old hatreds and fear. The missing ingredient: empathy. The ability to walk in each other’s shoes.
Only if we work at empathy can we experience our common humanity. It’s hard for white people to understand the context in which black parents have to train their children to behave if they are stopped by police. It’s hard to appreciate the pressures on police facing danger every day as they fulfill their commitment to protect and to serve. Officers need to know their efforts and sacrifice are appreciated.
Minorities experience the criminal justice system differently from how whites do. Minorities fear police more than they respect them. One need look only at the video of the Baton Rouge and Minnesota killings to understand why.
That said, we need better training of police so they react with more than their fear. We need better preparation of young people to reduce the risks of confrontation if they are stopped. The tragedy of last weekend is that reportedly Dallas has an excellent record on de-escalation.
Despair, disgust and depression suffused the weekend. Then came little signs for optimism. Black protesters hugging white police officers. Blacks and whites joining together in prayer vigils. And then, President Obama’s moving speech at the memorial service in Dallas. He grieved with the families of the slain officers and described the details of their lives. He reminded us how the police were there to defend protesters whose views differed from their own and ran toward the gunfire to protect them and their rights to criticize policing. He also spoke to the wounds of communities devastated by police shooting.
After eight years as our first “post-racial President,” Barack Obama clearly and sadly understands the fault line that racial hatred scores in our democracy. But as the nation’s mourner in chief, his words that “we are not so divided as we seem” had a tentatively healing impact. The challenge is, as he put it, to keep the spirit of “unity, born of tragedy,” from gradually dissipating. This will require more than a programmatic approach, improving training, reducing easy access to heavy duty weaponry. It means acknowledging the prejudice that lurks in our hearts, listening to others, walking in their shoes.
One fears that as early as the party conventions next week the President’s call for unity will be a relic. Both presidential candidates animate distrust, animosity and hatred. The police will be out in force. So will the protesters. And so will some who want to hijack the protests for their own agendas. We will learn from both conventions more about which candidate is better equipped to unify and heal. (I believe I know the answer to that.) Loud voices need to give way to the hard work lies ahead.