Two black people are dead, murdered by police in two separate incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five police officers are dead, mown down by at least one and maybe as many as four gunmen on the streets of Dallas, Texas at a peaceful protest against the first two deaths.
Seven families are in mourning. In their grief they are joined in universal powerlessness, but the circumstances of their grief contains multitudes of difference. They are worlds apart – two men killed by those who are supposed to protect them; and then five members of the class who killed the first two, mown down in the line of duty.
America is fighting a losing battle to try to process two seemingly-irreconcilable things in the wake of these multiple tragedies.
First, there is a widespread and devastating problem of institutionalised racial violence in America in general and in police departments in particular. US police have killed 566 people this year, and black people are much more likely to be victims of that violence – as well as incarceration – than white people. Extrajudicial killing of black people by police – for which the officers rarely face punishment – now happens at a rate chillingly similar to that of lynching during the Jim Crow era.
Philando Castile, in Minnesota, and Alton Stirling, in Louisiana, were the most recent victims of a seemingly endless stream of black people murdered by police, and once again America began its dismal routine, just like after Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police in Baltimore or Michael Brown’s in Ferguson, or Eric Garner’s in New York. Protest marches began nationwide.
But at one of those marches in Dallas, Texas, the police became the target. Five officers were killed in what may have been, at least in the twisted minds of the killers, an act with vengeance as pretext.
The human scale of such tragedies can be lost as the news cycle turns. Five more families are grieving today. Their loss is deeply felt. No less deeply felt is the grief of Castile’s family, and of Stirling’s. Their communities are angry. That anger is no less valid today.
There is immense national cognitive dissonance intrinsic to simultaneously feeling and understanding the anger against a national pandemic of police violence and against a targeted massacre of police officers themselves who, on an individual basis, are largely good people trying to do their best under tough circumstances, institutional bigotry notwithstanding.
In 44 states in the US it is legal to openly carry a “long gun” such as an AR-15 assault rifle, like the one used in Dallas as well as a dismal collection of other mass shooting events like the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando just a few weeks ago.
Several witnesses have said they saw the perpetrators earlier at the protest, but did not say anything because seeing people with weapons like that at a peaceful protest is actually not that unusual. One protester, who was legally carrying his firearm, was wrongly identified on Twitter as a suspect, and has had to go into hiding because he’s receiving death threats.
In large part because of the proliferation of firearms here, the job of a police officer in the US is orders of magnitude harder than it is in places like the UK. The National Rifle Association spends millions of dollars lobbying with frightening effectiveness to keep laws like these in place, preventing common-sense protective measures from ever happening, so any officer could at any day end up having to deal with one of the almost four million military-grade assault weapons in private hands in the US right now.
America has created a perpetual-motion machine of gun violence, an unstoppable cycle of death that kills – including firearm homicide and suicide – more than 33,000 people every year. That is the equivalent of the 9/11 attack happening every five weeks.
None of this excuses in any way the deaths of Stirling and Castile. Police in the US often act like an occupying army. The police fear the people; the people fear police. This is partly because of a depressing series of policy failings – training in de-escalation, rather than in the use of violence, is tragically lacking in many parts of the country.
It bears mentioning that the Dallas police force is actually one of the most forward-looking. A change in policy toward de-escalation of force in training has led to a 64 percent drop in officer-involved shootings in Dallas between 2009 and 2014. Earlier on Thursday police posed for pictures with protesters, and the atmosphere was peaceful.
The full details of the attack, including its motivation and the associations of the gunmen, are not yet known. But it scarcely matters. Everyone will project whatever they want onto Thursday’s tragedy. In its complexity, it can justify any narrative.
Joe Walsh – a former United States congressman – took to Twitter while the attacks were still going on. “This is now war,” he said. “Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” He has since deleted the tweet, but he was not alone. The Drudge Report, the largest right-wing news aggregation site, led with the dangerously misleading headline “Black Lives Kill.”
This response is depressing in its inevitability. When two police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were executed as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn in December 2014, Patrick Lynch, the borderline psychopathic president of the New York police union, immediately blamed protesters and mayor Bill de Blasio, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The likely effect on the wider politics of the country is harder to assess. Donald Trump, who can usually be relied upon to pour fuel on any flame, released an uncharacteristically controlled and even-handed statement in which he condemned both the attack in Dallas and the police killings in Minnesota and Louisiana.
Perhaps these are flames he does not need to fan. This level of horror is so ubiquitous now, the news cycle so grimly predictable, that it may not have a tangible effect one way or the other on November’s presidential election. It will confirm everyone’s fears; it will confirm everyone’s prejudices; it will confirm everyone’s beliefs.
A pro-gun control American will come away even more convinced of the need for gun control, while his opposite will come away even more convinced of the need for more “good guys with guns” on the streets. Racist killers among the ranks of police officers will come away even more convinced of the rightness of using lethal force.
The deep cracks that separate people will widen into an abyss, and into that abyss, bodies will continue to fall.