AND TO THINK the Orlando shooting was only a month ago.
The worst mass shooting in U.S. history since Wounded Knee is just one catastrophic headline out of many this summer.
And summer ain’t over yet.
The Pulse tragedy came amid a horrific wave of terror attacks in the Middle East which killed many, many hundreds but garnered little attention here. Let’s just say social media wasn’t abuzz with concern.
Closer to home, two killings of black men by police came in rapid succession. A smaller casualty list, to be sure, but because of the long, unabated history of these incidents, just as impactful, with reverberations around the world.
Then came Dallas.
The night the police were killed, I heard Dallas Police Chief David Brown talk about “triangulated fire” from an “elevated position,” and thought I was hallucinating or in a fever dream.
JFK was assassinated on the same street.
I feel like we’re living in a Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon novel, all sinister synchronicity and deep narrative, against an ominous backdrop of inevitable violence.
Or if sci-fi is more your bag: There was even a RoboCop.
After Dallas, people began saying “Civil War” in earnest. (The New York Post ran that headline in its early edition before cooler heads prevailed.)
“Did this start a civil war?” people ask.
The answer of course is that civil war is already here. We’re living it.
This is what civil war looks like: Mass shootings every other week, cops killing people, people ambushing cops, major highways being shut down, an all but unbridgeable racial divide, useless politicians vying to govern an ungovernable nation.
All aided and abetted by an inescapable social media culture which incentivizes as much divisiveness, polarization, and emotional extremes as possible.
You’ve probably read a hundred things over the weekend about police, racism, and the endless, endlessly stupid argument over Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter (can we all just accept that the name of the group is Black Lives Matter? If you don’t like the name, start your own group and call it whatever you want.)
I figure the last thing you want to hear is a middle-aged white dude’s opinion about race and police brutality, so I’ll stick to what I know.
Here in Savannah the one thing most everyone seems to agree on is we need more cops, not fewer.
This past Sunday’s peaceful Black Lives Matter march downtown was a sliver of hope in a quickly darkening world. Organizers and police worked together in a spirit of cooperation.
The fact that this happened in our strife-torn city whose Number 1 and Number 1A issues for decades have been violent crime and racial discord made it all the more inspiring.
It is entirely possible that Savannah’s famous insularity could shield us from the national breakdown in mutual trust and in law and order which is playing out in front of our eyes.
But let’s be frank. It was a truce, and a necessary one, but like all truces it can be shattered with a single shot.
These truths we hold self-evident:
1) Police departments all over the nation are faced with the task of overdue reform and the necessity of a paradigm shift in training and technique;
2) Locally we still have a high level of violent crime which will still need to be addressed by cops, especially in a sociocultural environment where even law-abiding private gun ownership carries increasing stigma.
I frankly don’t know why anyone would want to be a police officer today at double the salary.
Let’s put it this way: Get used to seeing more RoboCops.
In the meantime, the actual human flesh-and-blood cops who I know personally run the gamut of life experience.
They might be the most diverse workforce in our community: Black, white, gay, straight, young, old, male, female, conservative, and yes, plenty of liberals too.
But over the years a cavernous divide has formed that sets police departments apart from citizens.
Post-9/11, and also with roots in the excesses of the War on Drugs, police departments as institutions have morphed into an occupying paramilitary force in many areas of the country, armed with the newest high-tech equipment, with the accompanying Us vs. Them mindset.
At the same time—as Chief Brown has said—we also expect individual police officers to serve as underpaid, unlicensed stand-ins for the mental health professionals and social workers and substance abuse counselors this country consistently refuses to adequately fund and support.
And as Brown poignantly says, in some cases police are expected to serve as parental substitutes as well, in those communities where the influence of the family has deteriorated to nearly nothing.
There’s never an excuse for racial bias, whether on an individual basis or an institutional one. Things have to change, or the civil war we find ourselves in will undoubtedly continue, and undoubtedly claim more lives and treasure.
But until such time as police are all replaced by robots, they’re also still people, and they still come from our ranks.
In every city and country, police are a reflection of the community’s priorities, whatever they may be.
We all need to have a hand in helping remake police more in the community’s image. And maybe we can manage to remake our own image at the same time.
Sounds counterintuitive, maybe even offensive or insensitive to some, but this moment of national crisis is the worst possible time to ostracize law enforcement.
If we leave it up to police to police themselves, we already know the result.
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