Police Shootings and Shooting Police: Ending a National Nightmare

Police Shootings and Shooting Police: Ending a National Nightmare

I awoke this morning to another front-page story about another round of shootings, the third such headline just this week, the third to spotlight our nation’s ongoing struggle with race and authority.

The first story was of Alton Sterling’s shooting by Baton Rouge police, a black man held on the ground by two police officers who shot him dead.

The second was of Philando Castile, also a black male, killed in a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb by a police officer during an apparently routine traffic stop over a busted taillight.

Then, this morning, we awoke to news of an assault on Dallas police (and Dallas Transit Authority police), many of whom were providing security for a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration over the killing of Sterling, Castile and the long list of other black men. As of this writing, more law enforcement officers were killed in Dallas last night than in any other single attack in the U.S. since September 11, 2001.

What we human beings like to do is choose sides. We classify people as “one of us” or “one of them.” It’s a way for us to simplify complex information, to know, without spending too much time on the matter, what we think, how we feel, and who is right.

We look for observable markers when we engage in this rapid process. Words become magnetic poles for our sympathy and our revulsion. A partial list is easy to generate: American, illegal immigrant, terrorist, extremist, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Black, White, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, police officer, cop, thug.

All we ask is that someone stick a label on the key players so we know what to think.

Formal education in the classroom and informal education on the street can make a difference, can make us more aware of the stereotypes we invoke, the judgments we make, and their flaws. They can . . . but only if we are willing to let them, only if we are open to having our minds and hearts changed. Otherwise, we simply make an exception. We say (or at least think), “You’re not like other . . .” and preserve the stereotypical mold.

Being more afraid of a civilian because he is black is applying the stereotype. If being more afraid prompts us to give fewer warnings, to react with gunshots rather than give and take, then grave harm, unjust harm, is only an incident away.

Hating someone because he or she wears a uniform, or because he or she is of a different skin color, is applying the stereotype. And hatred in thought and in words easily translates to hatred in action under the wrong inducements, like a crowd of online sympathizers. There’s a reason we speak of videos going “viral;” their effect is to spread a destructive disease.

The question, this weekend, just a short week after we celebrated our nation’s commitment to the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” of every individual, is, are we all willing to change?

For those who are tired of hearing about how “black lives matter,” spend some time with the hard data of racial privilege in our society. Look at life expectancies (see page 22 of the report linked here), deaths due to homicides (compare tables on pages 36 and 69 of the report linked here), and lifetime economic prospects.

Don’t settle for the “I know someone who . . .” line of self-defense. Of course there are men and women of color who have reached the summit, scaling the steep mountain of prejudice and economic disadvantage. But to point to these triumphs as proof that nothing actually stands in the way of minorities is to pretend there’s no mountain at all. It’s a little like saying that because I’m a white male, and Michael Phelps is a white male, that there’s nothing standing in the way of my being in five summer Olympics and earning innumerable Olympic medals.

Could I have become an Olympic champion, since he is? Maybe. But no one I know has condemned me to poor prospects because I lacked that Herculean devotion to that particular labor.

Take one more step. Find a majority-minority impoverished public school, or rec center, or a house of worship serving an economically distressed minority community. Visit. Observe. Listen. Such experiences have opened my eyes to a world I was indeed privileged not to experience in my youth, to the forces that reproduce the oppression of poverty, prejudice and violence from one generation to the next. I also have witnessed hard work against long odds, remarkable courage and patient devotion that has challenged my all-too-quick tendency toward frustration with my own life circumstances.

For those who see a police uniform and imagine the SS, who assume when we hear of another police shooting that the officer is a racist, that when the Attorney General does not indict, that’s just the White establishment protecting its own, spend some time considering other possibilities. Attend a Citizen’s Police Academy, or a Neighborhood Watch. Sign up to ride along. Talk with the officer you meet at work or in the store. Ask them what keeps them up at night.

Talk to their families. Ask them what it is like, not to have the isolated fear that their beloved was in the wrong place at the wrong time when bad news hits, but to know with certainty that their beloved will choose to be in the “wrong place” to try to set things right, to serve and to protect strangers, including some who hate them and tell them so.

We all must learn, and change, if we are to see an end to this cycle of tragic violence. Investigations and charges and convictions of the bad actors (on both sides) will help, but only for the moment. Only a change of our attitudes toward others, an opening of our minds and hearts to those who are different from us, can bring an end to this ongoing national nightmare.

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