Words are insufficient. Words—like horror, atrocity and domestic terrorism—are inadequate. Words—like sin, evil and blasphemy—are wholly lacking.
“Violence is woven into the fabric of our country. Violence has been deployed against black folk from the moment we arrived on this continent — and for some even before that, the journey itself an act of violence.”
Gun violence in America took an even more despicable turn last night. Five police officers serving under the Dallas Police Department and Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police were murdered. Two civilians and seven more police officers were wounded. The officers were assassinated because they were police officers, because they were police officers serving at a #BlackLivesMatter protest, which was itself protesting the non-judicial police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. According to police sources, the officers were targeted because they were white, by a group of suspects at least one of whom was black. (The story is developing, and these are the facts as I understand them at the time of writing).
The choice of one or more people to murder police and claim their actions as retaliation for the killings of black folk killed unjustly at the hands of the police is monstrous.
The killings of the Dallas police officers and the killings of black and brown folk by police that have become more visible in recent years are not a series of isolated incidents. Violence is woven into the fabric of our country. Violence has been deployed against black folk from the moment we arrived on this continent—and for some even before that, the journey itself an act of violence. Violence against black bodies has been perpetrated by the state and its agents from the founding of this country.
Context is neither excuse nor rationale. However, understanding the layers of context helps us get to the root issues we need to address if we want to do more than wring our hands and offer thoughts and prayers.
“There are not just some bad police officers. There is a racist policing system that targets black folk from the moment officers see them and results in disproportionate levels of engagement and negative outcomes at every level of encounter.”
The murders of these police officers is rendered even more horrible by its multilayered contexts. Access to guns. Access to military grade weapons. Racially motivated killings. Rage over the squandering of black lives. Lack of convictions and sometimes even indictments for police officers who kill black folk in escalating encounters. Failure of police to deescalate situations with black folk. The appearance of collusion and sometimes cover-up by police. The claim by officers that they felt their lives were in jeopardy used like a mantra. Officers whose body cams stop working conveniently, lose their audio, or are thrown on the roof. Seized film footage that disappears. Black folk shot while complying with police orders. Black folk shot before they can even comply with police orders. I know I have not named all of the layers.
In recent years—even with all of the video footage of police killings of black people—there have been few officers held accountable. That violence is rooted in white supremacy, and its legacy is systemic racism. There are not just some bad police officers. There is a racist policing system that targets black folk from the moment officers see them and results in disproportionate levels of engagement and negative outcomes at every level of encounter.
Racist policing structures and procedures exist in a wider society that has not come to terms with its history or the legacy of white supremacy. Individual officers are conditioned by society and police culture to fear black folk, especially black men. That fear isn’t racism on their part as individuals, though some are surely racist. Fear of black folk is the effect of systemic racism and white supremacy, and it affects officers of all ethnicities.
“We cannot let anyone else define the movement for us. ‘I hate white people’ is not the cry of #BlackLivesMatter.”
The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are outrageous as were the deaths of Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin and so many, too many others before them. I cannot be certain that there will be justice for Alton and Philando. Before the murders of the officers, media outlets were already beginning the defaming of the dead, continuing the dehumanization not sufficiently accomplished by their killings.
I am more certain that the legal system will result in justice in the forms of convictions and likely executions for the cop-killers.
The disparate certainty and disparate outcomes are in a nutshell the reason #BlackLivesMatter exists and must continue to work with police to reform policing.
Those disparate hopes and fears were seized upon as an excuse to commit wanton acts of violence in the shadow of the movement. We cannot let anyone else define the movement for us. “I hate white people” is not the cry of #BlackLivesMatter. Dismantling racist structures, behaviors and attitudes in all layers of society, including policing, will remove the excuse for acts like these: cold-blooded murder, not aimed at liberating anyone.