Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Sniper in Dallas

Where have I heard those words before?

Back in college drama class, our teacher asked if anyone knew who J.D.Tippit was. Only one person raised his hand. It was my life-long obsession with the JFK assassination that enabled me to know that Tippet was the Dallas police officer who was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald (although JFK conspiracy theorists would beg do differ on that point), during the manhunt for the killer of President Kennedy.

The point of the question was to examine the nature of Classical tragedy whose subjects were inevitably the high and mighty, not your average Joe. In this case: the deaths of two people in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963 were intrinsically tied together. Both victims were shot by the same man (allegedly), both were World War II veterans roughly the same age who left behind grieving wives and small children. In the general sense, both deaths were tragic, yet one sent shockwaves around the world and has been recorded in history as a major event in American if not world history. The other decedent, while receiving some press coverage at the time of his death, has gone on to become a historical footnote. Scores of articles, books, films, plays, even an opera have been written about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As far as I know, not a single book, let alone opera has been written about J.D. Tippet. By virtue of position and his tragic end, one name to this day is known by the majority of people on the planet while the other name is known, as my classroom experience nearly forty years ago proved, by only a shrinking handful.

There is one concession to the dead policeman and his place in history, a historical marker in Dallas commemorating Tippit and his sacrifice, although it took 49 years to build it. At its unveiling in 2012, a state official said:
Officer Tippit did what hundreds of Dallas police officers do and have done every day... He did his job, and as a result he gave the ultimate sacrifice, and we as a community should never forget what happened on that day.
Sadly we'll be hearing similar words in the weeks to come, describing the five Dallas police officers who were ambushed during an otherwise peaceful demonstration, protesting the deaths of several African American men across the country in recent years, killed by police officers. The most recent of these deaths happened just this past week, one in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, the other in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

And like the deaths of Officer Tippit and President Kennedy, the deaths of officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith, will be intrinsically connected to the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and dozens of other African American men who died at the hands of police in the last couple of years.

While each of those deaths is equally tragic, there is a disconnect between the deaths of the police officers and the men killed by the police. Rather than placing equal weight on every loss of life, to many individuals in this country, the narrative of these men's deaths will be colored by the political ideology of the individual.

For some, the men who were killed by the police were resisting arrest, they may not have deserved to die, but definitely played a role in their own deaths. For others, the Dallas police officers may or may not have themselves done anything wrong, but all police are in some way complicit in the abuse of their authority and the institutional racism that is a part of their profession. To some, the violence against police brutality, especially as it exists in relation to the African American community, while not acceptable, is understandable.

As has been the case in this country for a long time, national tragedies such as these, instead of bringing us together as they should, have hardened hearts and torn us even more apart. The disconnect between the African American men killed by the police in recent years and the police officers killed in Dallas last Thursday night, is a perfect metaphor for the hardening divide we are experiencing in this nation today.

It is that divide that prevents individuals from thinking clearly and forming rational opinions. It's true for both the left and the right. We've slipped back into the habit of labeling people as groups rather than recognizing them as individuals. To some, all police are corrupt, brutal and racist; to others, all black people have the potential for violence.

That is the reason why every civilian death at the hands of police is treated equally by some. As I pointed out in my post about Laquan McDonald last November, that is a mistake. As you may recall, McDonald was a Chicago teenager on a vandalism spree who was shot sixteen times by an Chicago Police Department officer. From a video of McDonald's death taken from a police car dashboard-cam, it is very evident that while the teenager was indeed resisting arrest, he posed no imminent threat to anyone, including the officers on the scene. The cop who emptied his gun into McDonald and was re-loading when his partner told him to hold his fire, has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial.

The McDonald case, along with its subsequent cover-up by the CPD and the City of Chicago to me represents nothing less than the most egregious example of governmental malfeasance and criminal behavior on the part of the police. However, in each of the other well documented cases over the past several years, many of which were also documented on video, none were so clear cut. That is not to say the killings were justified, rather from the evidence presented, the acts of the police and the victims were ambiguous, and different interpretations of their motivations and actions are possible. While every civilian death at the hands of the police is a tragedy, no two are the same, nor should they be treated as such.

It has been pointed out that African Americans and other minorities are singled out by the police and treated differently from whites. The people making these claims have a point, but the extent to which that is true is debatable and the issue has been grossly over-simplified by the press and social media over the past few years.

Of the 484 people killed by the police in this country so far this year. 238 of them were white, and 123, or 25 percent of them were black. That number is still disproportionate to the population of African Americans in this country which stands at around 13 percent. In all fairness, it must also be pointed out that violent crimes (including the murder of police officers) are committed by African Americans in numbers disproportionate to their population as well. The reasons for this are many, but it is still an indisputable fact. It is also a fact that the victims of violent crime are disproportionately black. It should surprise no one that there might be a cause and effect relationship between the crime rate in the black community and the response from police, yet a casual observer whose source of news comes from one particular point of view, might assume that police only harass and kill black people in this country, while white criminals are given a free pass. The numbers simply do not support that assumption.

That is not to say that horrendous injustices involving the police do not take place far too often in this country. On the other hand, it is simply wrong to lump all police men and women together as brutal, racist thugs who abuse their authority.

The deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling last week bring a new dynamic into the picture. Unlike many of the well publicized deaths of black individuals at the hands of law enforcement officials, these two men were armed with guns during their confrontations with the police. Castile was stopped in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, on the pretext that his car had a broken tail light; the cops apparently thought he matched the description of a robbery suspect. In order to avoid any misunderstanding. Castile responsibly informed the officers that he had a valid conceal/carry permit and in fact had a gun in his possession. When he reached (presumably) for his drivers licence as requested by one of the officers, the other officer opened fire (again presumably) assuming Castile was reaching for his gun. Castile's girlfriend and her four year old daughter were in the car at the time of the shooting.

Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside a food store in Baton Rouge. Someone, reportedly a homeless man, approached Sterling asking for money. When the man persisted, Sterling allegedly produced his weapon, prompting the man to phone the police. When they arrived, a struggle ensued and Sterling was shot when the cops discovered his gun.

As individuals carrying weapons presumably for their own protection, both Castile and Sterling it would seem, would be poster children for the gun crowd, who advocates the arming of private citizens. But the NRA has remained uncharacteristically silent after their deaths. No cries of foul that the police violated the men's civil rights to bear arms were sounded. Now it's true that Sterling as a convicted felon, could not have legally obtained a carry permit, but all indications lead to the fact that he was carrying the weapon for his own safety. Castile as we saw was authorized to carry a gun and was well within his legal rights.

So why the silence from the NRA? Is it because as some people suggest they are a racist organization who would have cried bloody murder had Castile and Sterling been white? Or do the tragic deaths of these two individuals serve as yet another reminder that the stance that we'd all be safer if we carried a gun is ludicrous? I suppose only the NRA knows the answer to that question and they're are not talking.

Finally there was the terrible shooting in Dallas where a former soldier opened fire and killed five police officers and injured many more, including civilians, apparently in retaliation for the killings of black men across the country by law enforcement officials. Ironically, the Dallas Police Department has a relatively good record when it comes to its relationship with the sizable African American community of that city. Not to go into a psychological profile of the killer, but it seems clear to me that like so many Americans, he was swept into a frenzy because of the current obsession of the press and social media, concentrating on the misdeeds of cops toward the African American community, without putting them into context.

A video that has gone viral shows a black woman from St. Louis commenting about violent protests that took place in her city over an African American man who was shot and killed by police after he pulled a gun on them. That same evening she points out, in the suburb of Ferguson, a young black girl who was doing her homework, was killed by a stray bullet that came from a gun used in a drive-by shooting that found its way into her bedroom. Not a soul protested the little girl's death. The truth is far more black people die at the hands of other black people in this country than by police. Yet in some circles, this is irrelevant as it is apparently not an appropriate topic for discussion.

Then there are the guns. The events of last week showed time and again how ridiculous is the notion that civilians carrying guns in public is a good idea. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile lost their lives because they were carrying guns. And it took an army of well trained, heavily armed law enforcement officials, with the help of an exploding robot to bring down the Dallas sniper. Imagine if armed protesters at the demonstration had decided to do a little freelance police work on their own, no doubt dozens of innocent people would have died. Instead, the civilians at the protest, many of whom we can assume were armed (it was Texas after all), ran for their lives, which turned out to be the sensible thing to do.

The pro gun crowd constantly complains about folks on the other side who use a terrible tragedy to promote their anti-gun agenda. Well it turns out terrible tragedies involving guns are occurring at a rate of about two or three per week these days so tell me, where is the opportunity to talk openly about guns when no such tragedy occurs? They say that laws restricting guns only affect law abiding citizens, since criminals who by nature of their being criminals, aren't going to be concerned about following any law. Fair enough. But consider this: our ever increasing relaxation of laws prohibiting firearms has a direct effect on the number of weapons manufactured. No one knows for sure but most data suggests there are more guns in the United States (approximately 300 million) than there are people. It has also been estimated that there are about twice as many guns today in this country than there were fifty years ago. Criminals don't make their guns themselves, they either buy them or steal them. And the overwhelming supply of guns in this country makes them ridiculously cheap and easy to get, including weapons of mass destruction like the semi-automatic assault rifles used in the Orlando mass shooting a few weeks ago, and in Dallas last week. Those guns are capable of discharging as many rounds of ammunition per minute as the shooter is capable of pulling the trigger.

As for the idea of "good guys with guns", well as someone put it in an online comment, the Dallas sniper, a U.S. Army veteran, was once a good guy with a gun.

Let's face it, we have many serious problems in this country, and finger pointing, marching and posturing, satisfying as they may be to the people who engage in them, aren't going to do much good. These problems, just like the deaths mentioned above, are all interconnected; cherry picking one problem or another based upon our political convictions simply will not work. We can't address the abuse of police authority without also addressing black on black crime, white privilege, and racism. We can't address racism or black on black crime without addressing poverty and a lack of jobs and education in the black community. We can't address those issues without addressing issues like the rapid decline of the two parent family and the idea of personal responsibility. We can't address the issue of crime and violence without addressing all of the above AND the availability of guns. And like it or not, we can't address the issue of the availability of guns without addressing the issue of how we can control the sale, manufacture and possession of firearms without violating constitutional rights. Until we find a way to listen to the other side, work out our differences, be willing to compromise, and honestly come to terms with issues that are inconvenient for us, we can only expect more of the same.

All the catchy slogans in the world aren't going to solve any problems. Yes I get it, black lives do matter and guns don't kill people, people kill people.

It's just so much more damn complicated than that.

No comments: