Long before five Dallas police officers were killed on the deadliest day for law enforcement since 9/11, cops were central actors in our divided society.
Depending on opposing perspectives, the police are either defenders of public safety or enforcers of a status quo rigged against poor people of color. That divide, along racial and political lines, seems to be hardening by the week, as each new act of violence is captured on cellphone cameras.
Our technology seems to improve not just by the day, but by the minute. However, our stubborn disputes are stuck in a past that infects the present and threatens the future.
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Polarized perspectives created the Black Lives Matter movement. The group started as a response to the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager shot to death in Sanford, Fla., by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Two summers later, the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., triggered more BLM protests.
Like the police, BLM is a divisive force. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center between February and May, 41 percent of African Americans strongly support BLM as opposed to only 14 percent of whites and 15 percent of Hispanics. Another Pew survey found that 84 percent of African Americans believed that blacks are treated less fairly by police compared to 50 percent of whites.
In this fight, a virtual civil war of perspectives, combatants spew invective on social media or, in the most extreme case yet, they take up arms.
It was a self-professed hatred of others that apparently drove Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old African American Army veteran, to shoot at Dallas law enforcement Thursday during a peaceful protest staged by BLM. Dallas police Chief David Brown announced to the media on Friday that Johnson had told police negotiators that he hated white people and wanted to kill them, especially white cops.
Before the shooting began, Dallas police had been live tweeting the event and posting photos of cops posing with protesters. Based on the department’s Twitter account, there were smiles all around and a shared sense of pride that people were peacefully expressing their First Amendment rights while drawing attention to the killings of two more African American men earlier in the week – one in suburban St. Paul, Minn., and the other in Baton Rouge, La.
After the tragic bloodshed – five officers killed by sniper fire and seven wounded – most leaders pulled together in a show of unity. But some couldn’t stop themselves from displaying the kind of intolerance that typifies the divisions tearing at America.
“All those protesters last night, they turned around and ran the other way expecting the men and women in blue to protect them. What hypocrites!” said Dan Patrick, lieutenant governor of Texas. According to The Dallas Morning News, Patrick “blamed Black Lives Matter protesters for the violence against police and said people ‘with big mouths are creating situations like we saw last night.’ ”
“We have to have their back,” Patrick said of police. “And I’m sick and tired of those who are protesting our police and putting their lives in danger.”
Patrick saw little difference between the peaceful protesters and the person who pulled the trigger. His sentiments are hardly unique. They are where we go wrong in America. They typify how, despite repeated calls for unity by President Barack Obama and other leaders, too many choose sides based on their biases and prejudices.
The protests that followed the killings of Martin, Brown, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Harris in Tulsa, Walter Scott in South Carolina, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile near St. Paul, and others, were legitimate expressions of public concern. Citizens wanted to know: Did these people need to die when they encountered police?
It’s not an unfair question. Police have the right to carry firearms, to arrest people based on probable cause and, under certain circumstances, to use deadly force. That’s a tremendous amount of power, and public trust that demands scrutiny to prevent it from being abused.
“It’s the most powerful job in our country,” said Daniel Hahn, the chief of police in Roseville. “There are very few jobs that can take someone’s freedom away.”
Hahn, who is African American, came up through the ranks of Sacramento police before landing the top job in Roseville. In his own way, Hahn is trying to break down the divide between the public and his officers.
“Every walk of life has good people and bad people and law enforcement is no different,” Hahn said. “We have to open our minds because right now we have two sides yelling at each other, like a riot.”
Hahn has brought crime victims into his department to speak to his rank-and-file officers. He wants his officers to see them as people, not statistics. “Putting body cameras on cops is a good, but it’s not a solution,” he said. “We have to start valuing people, valuing lives.”
BLM took root because enough people felt the police didn’t value the lives of African Americans, especially those killed in questionable encounters with police. A gunman in Dallas didn’t value the lives of law enforcement officers who had nothing to do with killings in other communities that were being protested in Dallas on Thursday.
Lorne Ahrens was a Dallas police officer and a father. Michael Krol, also a Dallas police officer, was only 40. Michael Smith received many citations for outstanding service in his long career in the Dallas police. Patrick Zamarripa, also of Dallas police, left a wife and 2-year-old daughter. Brent Thompson, a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer, had only been married for two weeks.
The lives of those slain officers were sacred, just as the lives of the men and women whose deaths inspired the BLM movement were sacred. To see it any other way will only make it easier for others to die equally violent and senseless deaths.