Five police officers in Dallas are dead after a shooting, which took place toward the end of a peaceful demonstration on July 7. The protest was a response to the gut-wrenching acts of police violence, which killed Philando Castile in Minneapolis and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.
A suspect, according to Dallas Police Chief David Brown, is also dead. Twenty-five year-old Micah Johnson was cornered by police for hours until police sent in a “bomb robot” and detonated an explosive that killed Johnson.
Brown claimed during a press briefing on July 8 that Johnson was “upset about the recent police shootings.” He was “upset about white people,” and he wanted to “kill white people, especially white officers.” He informed the police he was not with any particular groups and said he “acted alone.” He also spoke about improvised explosive devices (IEDs), as if they had been placed around the city.
It may be shortsighted to put forward any sort of a brief analysis when there are still details to be reported. However, what we know is, since the police failed to arrest Johnson and bring him in for questioning, the public may always have a limited understanding of what unfolded. Unless Johnson wrote something about why he chose to launch an attack, all we have is the police’s version of their encounter to understand motive.
The little evidence we have suggests this was an act of political violence. Johnson believed in black power and resorted to shooting police as an act of resistance against structural racism, especially the fact that police are permitted to kill so many innocent black lives without facing prosecution for their actions.
Johnson was a United States military veteran. From November 2013 to July 2014, he was deployed to the war in Afghanistan. He was trained to kill people by the very government which sanctions violence against people of color on a daily basis.
One of the photos being distributed by media and social media users is of Johnson wearing a dashiki, which is an African tunic, as he pumps his fist in the air. This is an expression of black power that is nonviolent, and yet in circulating this image, this expression will now be associated with the assassinations of police.
There is another photo of Johnson wearing U.S. military attire. Perhaps, this is the image that should be shared more widely. The military teaches enlisted men and women how to solve conflicts with violence. The videos of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling executed by police flipped a switch in his brain and spurred him to respond to an ongoing conflict in this country.
It is impossible to learn the right lessons about this moment if we do not consider how Johnson probably believed he was standing up for black Americans.
Police have shot more people in the first six months of 2016 than they did last year. There have been 491 people killed, according to the Washington Post. Black people continue to be killed at two-and-a-half times the rate of white people.
From the Post:
“I feel change is not coming,” said Porsche McCullough, whose 29-year-old black female cousin was shot and killed by an Asian San Francisco police officer in May. “The community is tired. They are tired of seeing black people shot, poor people shot, people with substance-abuse problems shot.”
Communities have had enough of the “broken windows” policing, which is carried out by officers to maintain the racist neoliberal policies of the U.S. government. That is why any video capturing police brutality, especially as vividly as the videos of Castile and Sterling’s deaths, induce moments of nationwide protest in the streets.
Civil rights leader Malcolm X once talked about communities responding to police brutality in the 1960s. In comments directed at Harlem police commissioner Michael J. Murphy, Malcolm X declared:
Almost every statement that Commissioner Murphy makes would give you the impression that he is encouraging the police, rank and file policemen, to take whatever method or measures necessary to hold the Negroes in check. He feeds the type of statistics to the white public to make them think that Harlem is a complete criminal area, that everyone is prone towards violence. This gives the police the impression that they can then go and brutalize the Negroes or suppress the Negroes or even frighten the Negroes. Whenever something happens, 20 police cars converge on one area. This doesn’t frighten Negroes. So it means that someone is either misinforming Commissioner Murphy and making him use tactics this year that he would not use four years ago or the form of policemen that Kennedy would not use.
And this force, which is so visible in the Harlem community, creates a spirit of resentment in every Negro. They think they are living in a police state, and they become hostile towards the policemen. They think the policemen is there to be against them rather than to protect them, and these thoughts, these frustrations, these apprehensions automatically are sufficient to make these Negroes form ways to protect themselves in case the police themselves get too far out of line!
That is not to endorse the taking up of arms to attack police but rather to call particular attention to the oppressive climate, which exists throughout the country and makes it inevitable that there will be lone individuals who take action.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch addressed the violence of the past week and stated:
…After the events of this week, Americans across the county are feeling a sense of helplessness, of uncertainty and of fear. These feelings are understandable and they are justified. But the answer must not be violence. The answer is never violence.
Rather, the answer must be action: calm, peaceful, collaborative, and determined action. We must continue working to build trust between communities and law enforcement. We must continue working to guarantee every person in this country equal justice under the law. We must take a hard look at the ease with which wrongdoers can get their hands on deadly weapons and the frequency with which they use them. We must reflect on the kind of country we want to build and the kind of society we want to pass on to our children. We must reject the easy impulses of bitterness and rancor and embrace the difficult work of finding a path forward together… [emphasis added]
There is a fundamental problem with this suggestion. As Center for Constitutional Rights Director Vincent Warren has eloquently stated, “To present the situation as mutual distrust not only obscures the specific causes of that distrust—it intimates that everyone is equally responsible for the problem.”
“The call for ‘conversation’ as the solution then reinforces this idea that the legitimate problems with law enforcement vocalized by minority communities are really all just one big misunderstanding,” Warren added. “Our political leaders should not begin to offer solutions for a problem if they won’t even name it: systemic, institutional racism exists in police forces throughout our country.”
Notice there is nothing in Lynch’s statement about holding police officers accountable. There is nothing about stepping up action against police, who get their hands on “deadly weapons” and the “frequency with which they use them.”
Moreover, a proposal to focus on gun control will not resolve the tension if it only results in taking guns away from people, who might resort to violence against police. That may satisfy the goal of protecting police lives, however, it will not guarantee that there is peace and justice without riots or other massive acts of violence in response to police brutality in the future.
Like the blowback against American superpower, which brought about the September 11th attacks, there will continue to be blowback against police so long as officers in departments throughout the country keep engaging in horrific acts of violence and oppression against minority communities.