Tragedy unites a nation. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, as one, we decided we had to do something. The nation united around George W. Bush, who vowed he would do something, and did. After ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban – but not finding that Osama fellow and being stuck with a failed state and being forced to build one there from scratch (we’re still working on it) – we invaded and occupied Iraq. That was something. That was the wrong thing, but it was something. And then it all fell apart. The “surge” bought us some time, but the Sunnis were never going to accept a Shiite government, especially one that locked them out of everything – but for a year or so after we removed that evil Sunni tyrant, Saddam Hussein, we were united as a nation. We had done the right thing. All was well.
We know better now. We’re wary. Most of us realize that tragedy only exposes the deep problems that caused the tragedy in the first place. This week we have five dead cops in Dallas, gunned down by an unhinged young black man who’d had enough of white cops killing unarmed young black men. He snapped, and he wasn’t too stable in the first place, but the damning video from Baton Rouge and Minnesota showed what it showed. Two young black men shot dead on the spot for no good reason – one fully restrained on the ground and the other pulling out his identification, as asked. The ambush and assassination of five police officers was a national tragedy, but there was a whole lot more going on. This was never going to unite us.
Tragedy and ambiguity don’t mix, and this one was full of ambiguities:
Trauma surgeon Brian Williams was running Parkland Memorial Hospital’s emergency room the night seven officers arrived after a shooting rampage in downtown Dallas by a lone gunman who targeted police.
Williams, whose hospital routinely treats multiple gunshot victims, quickly went to work that night.
Later, he choked back tears when describing how three officers died at the hospital.
“I think about it every day, that I was unable to save those cops when they came here that night,” Williams said at an emotional news conference Monday. “It weighs on my mind constantly.”
Williams is also a black man who said he was deeply affected by “the preceding days of more black men dying at the hands of police officers.” He understands the anger directed toward police and has had his own run-ins with officers in which he feared for his life.
In an interview he explained many of those, and they were frightening, so now, all he can say is this:
“I want the Dallas Police Department to see I support you. I defend you. I will care for you. That doesn’t mean I will not fear you,” he said Monday. “That doesn’t mean that when you approach me, I will not have a visceral reaction and start worrying about my personal safety.”
Nothing is simple, although he says that when he’s out and about with his five-year-old daughter he likes to “do simple things” to show kindness to police officers, like picking up their tabs at a restaurant:
“I want my daughter to see me interacting with police officers that way so that she doesn’t grow up with the same burden I have,” he said.
That may not work. There are cops and then there are cops. A bit of fear might be useful to the kid, a necessary burden – better submissive and abused than dead.
Still, there are stories like this:
When a couple refused to sit next to a booth full of police officers at a restaurant, the cops counteracted with an act of kindness. It happened over the weekend at an eatery in Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh.
A group of officers from Homestead and a neighboring department were having dinner at Eat N’ Park restaurant when a server tried to seat the couple right next to them. The couple wasn’t having it.
“The guy looks over at one of the police officers and was like, ‘Nah I don’t want to sit here.’ So they got moved completely opposite, away from the police officers,” restaurant server Jesse Meyers told CNN affiliate WTAE.
“I looked over and said, ‘It’s okay sir. You won’t have to worry about it, we won’t hurt you,” Homestead police Officer Chuck Thomas said. “He looked at me hard again and said he’s not sitting here and walked away.”
Then the officers, fully cognizant of the recent heightened tensions between police and the communities that they serve, had an idea. They’d counteract this rude brush off with a random act of kindness.
The officers paid the couple’s $28.50 bill, and left this note on the receipt: “Sir, your check was paid for by the police officers you didn’t want to sit next to. Thank you for your support.”
That last bit was a bit sarcastic, but no harm was done:
“Essentially the whole goal of it was to let him know that we’re not here to hurt you,” Thomas said. “We’re here for you. We work for the public. And we just want to better the relationship between the community and the police.”
As the officers left, one of them got a smile and quick thank you from one of the two people who had earlier rebuffed them.
That sort of thing helps, but this sort of thing doesn’t:
Four off-duty police officers who were providing security at a Minnesota Lynx home game Saturday walked off the job following pregame comments by some players and team members warming up in shirts with messages supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The president of the Minneapolis Police Federation offered praise for the officers’ decision to quit and suggested that their colleagues may all choose to do the same.
Before a game against the Dallas Wings, Lynx players wore shirts with the phrase, “Change Starts with Us – Justice and Accountability,” on the front. The backs of the shirts bore the names of two men killed by police officers in incidents in Minnesota and Louisiana last week, the logo for the Dallas Police Department and the words, “Black Lives Matter.”
That didn’t go well:
A day after a Minnesota police union chief voiced strong support for four off-duty officers who quit rather than provide security for a WNBA team that demonstrated its feelings about three high-profile incidents that resulted in deaths last week, the mayor of Minneapolis slammed his comments as “jackass remarks.” Mayor Betsy Hodges did not mince any words Tuesday in distancing herself from what Lt. Bob Kroll had said. …
The players also offered remarks before a home game Saturday condemning both “racial profiling” and “violence against the men and women who serve on our police force.”
The players said they were on the side of the Dallas police too, but that didn’t matter:
Kroll also took a swipe at the attendance of the team, which won last year’s WNBA title and has been the champion in three of the past five seasons, saying, “They only have four officers working the event because the Lynx have such a pathetic draw.”
Yeah, who wants to see large hulking young very black women play basketball anyway? That was a question that should not have been implied:
The Minneapolis police chief, Janee Harteau, also issued a statement Tuesday, saying, “Although these officers were working on behalf of the Lynx, when wearing a Minneapolis Police uniform I expect all officers to adhere to our core values and to honor their oath of office. Walking off the job and defaulting on their contractual obligation to provide a service to the Lynx does not conform to the expectations held by the public for the uniform these officers wear.”
In short, do your damned job, but this was spreading:
Before their game against the San Antonio Stars on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, the New York Liberty players wore black T-shirts addressing the recent shooting deaths of black men by the police in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, La., and the fatal shooting of five Dallas police officers. The shirts, which were printed without notice to the WNBA read: #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5. The back of the shirts had another hashtag followed by a blank space.
“We do need people to stand up and understand and express that black lives are just as important as any other lives in America, and right now that’s not being seen,” Liberty guard Tanisha Wright said.
And really, the guys had done this, two years earlier:
In December 2014, shortly after a grand jury did not indict a New York police officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, NBA players struck a similar stance to that of the Liberty players.
Knicks guard Derrick Rose, then with the Chicago Bulls, wore a T-shirt with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” and was followed by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and members of the Nets. Most of the players focused on supporting Garner’s family, and were not as directly engaged in relating their attire to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Sure, but it was the same thing, and the women were far more balanced in their approach:
After the game on Sunday, which the Liberty won, 75-65, Kiah Stokes, Tina Charles and Carolyn Swords joined Cash and Wright to answer questions about their statement.
“I think it’s a shame that we keep seeing people that want to make this movement as something that’s violent,” said Cash, who repeatedly hit the lectern with her fist and whose voice cracked while speaking. “Five cops gave their lives up trying to protect a peaceful movement. And in this country, I do believe that you can assemble peacefully and protest against injustice. So until the system transforms, we cannot sit here and act like there is not a problem here in America.”
Yes, there are problems:
A former Chicago Police detective shown in a photo posing as a hunter who bagged a black teenager as a trophy should not get his job back, an Illinois appellate court has ruled.
Timothy McDermott had appealed the decision of a Cook County judge, who in 2014 upheld the detective’s firing for appearing in the photo.
A black kid playing dead on the floor, wearing antlers, with the two cops holding hunting rifles and grinning – they said it was just a joke – but there are cops and then there are cops:
Then-Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who had asked the Chicago Police Board to fire McDermott, called the photo “disgusting.”
Also posing in the photo was Officer Jerome Finnigan, who is serving a 12-year prison term for corruption.
The U.S. attorney’s office had obtained the 2002 photo during a criminal investigation of Finnigan and other officers accused of participating in a robbery ring. The feds turned over the photo to the Chicago Police Department in 2013.
A state appellate court on Friday upheld the police board’s firing of McDermott for violating three department rules: bringing discredit on the department; disrespect of a person; and unnecessarily displaying a weapon.
What can be said about this sort of thing? America has issues, now about both Black Lives Matter and the killing of those five police officers in Dallas, but the highly conservative Jonah Goldberg suggests that we can work this out:
At least for a moment, antagonists on either side of polarizing issues could see beyond the epistemic horizon of their most comfortable talking points. Black Lives Matter activists thanked the police for their protection and sacrifice. Conservative Republicans, most notably Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, spoke movingly about race in America. Gun rights activists were dismayed that Philando Castile, the man shot by a police officer in Minneapolis, had followed all of the rules – he had a gun permit, cooperated with the officer, etc. – and was still killed. Liberals who insist that rhetoric from their political opponents inspires violence were forced to consider whether rhetoric from their allies might have helped inspire the shooter in Dallas. …
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who did not lose his lazy certainty) spent the weekend attacking the Black Lives Matter movement as “racist.” He wants people to focus on the fact that most black murder victims die at the hands of other blacks. That’s true, and tragic, and fairly irrelevant.
Conservatives, of all people, should understand that misdeeds committed by agents of the state are categorically different from the same acts committed by normal citizens. A father who slaps his son for no good reason, however wrong that may be, is very different from a cop who slaps a citizen for no good reason.
Kevin Drum sees the same thing:
I’m continually nonplussed by the apparent inability of so many people to believe two things at the same time. Thing 1: Most police officers are conscientious public servants who perform dangerous jobs admirably and honorably. They’re my first call if I’m ever in trouble. Thing 2: They’re also human beings just like the rest of us, and fall prey to the same racial stereotyping that most of us do – but with guns in their hands. It’s hardly surprising that black activists are finally demanding better treatment from police in their communities. The only surprising thing is that it took so long.
Two things. Both true. And not so hard to believe at the same time.
That’s easy for him to say, but President Obama had to explain that very carefully and slowly to America in his speech in Dallas. The Washington Post captures how hard that was:
A chastened and humbled President Obama on Tuesday used a memorial service here for five slain police officers to call on Americans to overcome their racial divisions and mutual suspicion after years of relentless gun violence.
Obama’s impassioned appeal – one he has repeated often throughout his presidency – was made more powerful by confessions of his own doubt about whether he and the country are up to the task.
“I am not naive. I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency,” Obama said in one of the most reflective and personal speeches of his time in office. “I have seen how inadequate my own words have been.”
His rhetoric hasn’t been able to counter the rhetoric from both sides, the angry black community and the angry and defensive law and order folks:
His challenge, in the midst of a bitter and polarized presidential election season, was to press Americans to be more empathetic and focus on their shared values. The task was made all the more difficult by the graphic videos of police shootings that have ricocheted across social media over the past week, spawning competing narratives about racial discrimination, inequities in the criminal justice system and the dangers of policing.
“Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?” Obama asked. “I don’t know. I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt.”
Aboard Air Force One en route to Texas, Obama called family members of the two men killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota to offer his and the first lady’s condolences.
In Dallas, the president praised police officers for doing difficult and dangerous work, even as he called attention to broader problems with policing practices across the nation. He consoled the mourners, even as he challenged Americans to be more open with each other, to shout less and listen more.
Two things, both true:
“If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts. We know that,” Obama said. He acknowledged that even as Americans try to rise above bigotry and discrimination, “none of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune, and that includes our police departments,” he said. “We know this.”
Former president George W. Bush, who lives in Dallas, also addressed the mourners and sought to project a common purpose beyond politics. “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” Bush said, in remarks that Obama would echo.
They agreed, even if the talk radio folks say Bush was scolding Obama there, in support of the cops. That seems unlikely, and Obama was on familiar ground:
One year ago, Obama stood before an arena full of mourners in Charleston, S.C., who had gathered to remember nine black parishioners killed by a white gunman during a Bible study. In Charleston, Obama gave a soaring, spiritual and optimistic address. The country, he said, had responded to the brutal killings with a “big-hearted generosity… a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.”
He cast the killings at Emanuel AME Church as a divinely inspired turning point. In the days after the slayings, South Carolina lawmakers had voted overwhelmingly to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol dome. Obama called on Americans to build on that spirit by tackling the country’s biggest and most intractable problems: guns, racial discrimination, poverty.
In Dallas, he once again described a tragedy as a call to action, but this time he was more blunt than soaring. His optimism was tempered by a stream of violence in the intervening year. Since he spoke in Charleston, there have been more mass shootings: in Roseburg, Ore.; San Bernardino, Calif.; Orlando; and now Dallas. Much to his frustration, the president’s efforts to advance gun-control legislation have gone nowhere, and a bipartisan push for criminal justice reform has stalled. Racial tensions seem to have grown worse amid the recent run of police shootings and the divisive cacophony of a bitter election season.
Tragedy is a call to action. We must do something. We will do something. Not much comes of it. But he’ll give it another go:
Obama called on police and their supporters not to ignore the complaints of protesters who point to racial disparities in searches, arrests, deadly shootings and sentences as proof of police bias.
“To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends… it hurts,” Obama said. “Surely we can see that, all of us.”
He called on protesters and civil rights activists to empathize with the plight of police officers, who are often assigned to patrol dangerous and forgotten neighborhoods without sufficient resources.
“We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book,” Obama said. “We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience. … These things we know to be true.”
If Americans cannot speak “honestly and openly,” Obama warned, the problems will fester, and “we will never break this dangerous cycle.”
In short, we could talk, and drop the bullshit.
That’s easy for him to say. It’s an election year and David Weigel explains the rhetorical issues on the right:
Hours after he branded himself the “law and order” candidate for president, Donald Trump weighed in on another politically loaded term – one he proudly rejected: “Black Lives Matter.”
“A lot of people feel that it is inherently racist,” the presumptive Republican nominee told the Associated Press on Monday. “It’s a very divisive term, because all lives matter. It’s a very, very divisive term.”
Trump, who has a habit of starting a debate because “a lot of people” want him to, was not wrong about the phrase’s divisiveness. In the wake of last week’s police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, and especially after the killing of five police officers in Dallas, fresh conservative thinking about race and crime has been stymied by those three words.
“I believe I saved a lot more black lives than Black Lives Matter,” Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and one of Trump’s most reliable advocates in the Republican Party, said over the weekend. “I don’t see what Black Lives Matter is doing for blacks other than isolating them. All it cares about is the police shooting of blacks. It doesn’t care about the 90 percent of blacks that are killed by other blacks.”
Giuliani and Trump, who have sought and sometimes received the support of police unions, are among the most prominent people to argue that “Black Lives Matter” is simply too heated and accusatory to represent a serious call for reform.
“A lot of people” think otherwise:
To members and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, anger at the phrase is at best ill-considered and at worst malicious. The clear intent of the words, they say, is to emphasize that black lives matter as much as others.
They’ve scoffed as critics suggest the use of a slogan like “All Lives Matter,” as the radio host Glenn Beck did at an August 2015 rally “to end discrimination” that featured gospel music and a prayer from Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
DeRay Mckesson, a prominent activist arrested in Baton Rouge over the weekend, accused Giuliani of “deflecting so that we are not engaged in a conversation about the abuses the police inflict on communities of color time and time again” in a Monday interview with MSNBC.
There you have it. “Black Lives Matter” is simply too heated and accusatory to be useful, or it’s a critical reminder of what’s true and should never be forgotten, or it is both. And tragedy unites us in a common cause, or it rips us apart as it exposes the nasty underlying cause of the tragedy in the first place, or it does both.
No one likes ambiguity, and ambiguity is political poison, and it’s also the closest thing to truth in difficult times. Obama tried to explain that to the nation – two things can be equally true – but maybe that’s too hard a concept for America right now. We may have to learn that the hard way, again.