Friday, July 8, 2016
In August of 1969, brutal, ritualized murders in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles – the infamous Tate-LaBianca killings – shocked the nation. Charles Manson and his murderous “family,” all white, fomented the killings, writing Helter Skelter in blood on the wall of his victims, reference to lyrics in the Beatles White Album (inspired by a U.K. amusement park ride) and text from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. A taunt at mostly-white police, the word “PIG” also scrawled in blood, tried to make the slaughter appear to be the work of angry blacks. His stated goal was to start a race war, black versus white, across the nation. His efforts obviously failed… then.
Nearly 47 years later, with Manson still in prison and even with an African-American president, a hard look at America would suggest that the simmering kettle of racial tension in this country – a pretty clear double standard in the way the criminal justice system treats black versus white citizens throughout most of the United States – seemed to be ramping up to a nascent but full-on race war. Manson’s dream. From occasional instances of police misconduct followed by violent reactions in black neighborhoods to a litany of seemingly unjustified cop-on-black killings to a carefully orchestrated black-on-cop military-style sniper attack in Dallas, Texas. Five police officers dead. Seven cops injured, two civilians. The main shooter – Army veteran Micah X. Johnson… but were there more? – was blown up in a standoff with Dallas cops in his house.
We’ve seen Ferguson protests-turned-riots, inner city shootings escalating, anger seething, more cop-on-black shootings. White cops, prosecuted for seemingly excessive use of deadly force, routinely exonerated in jury trials. “Black lives matter” movement… countered by “blue lives matter” and “lives matter” movements from segments of white America. Anger fed on anger. Blacks tried to explain to white America how many times they were stopped and interrogated (and arrested) by police without justification… other than the color of their skin. Liberals nodded their heads. Police departments instituted “sensitivity training,” community “liaisons” tried to reach into black inner city neighborhoods. Gangs laughed at the effort.
Conservatives screamed back. More guns. More “good guys with guns” to stop “bad guys with guns” – the gun lobby’s (NRA’s) puppets in state legislatures and congress insisted. The rest of the world was aghast at America’s obsession with guns. Liberal states clamped down on assault weapons; conservative states passed “open carry,” “stand your ground,” and other statutes making more lethal weapons easier to get and legal to use… to kill people. The shorthand for clamping down against angry blacks without solving the underlying problems? “Law and order.” Remember those words. Understand what they really mean. More of the same.
With well over 300 million guns in the United States, idiots anywhere in this nation know that getting their hands on large-capacity magazine automatic weapons is just so easy. And those with enough anger, enough military training or “street experience” or commercial shooting range practice can use those guns with uneasy efficiency.
The side effects of decades of excessive a criminal justice system’s massive “round-up” of young black males, statistics that suggest a near-term probability that 30% of that demographic will have been incarcerated, were taking their toll. Children without fathers… so routine that many have simply eliminate marriage as a viable institution in their world… and angry black males, given advanced training in criminal activity while incarcerated, being denied decent jobs because of their criminal records. Kids pulled out of third-rate inner city schools, overcrowded and often falling apart, to serve time… or dropping out to make money (often criminal) in their hopeless neighborhoods. A generation of inner city blacks (and other minorities) with little or nothing to lose.
Body and smart phone cameras changed the playing field. What was once a “he said, she said” cop-vs-black statement of “what happened” (which almost always favored the police report) to clear video evidence of what had been swept under the rug for a very, very long time. In recent days before the Dallas massacre, national attention had focused on two very recent cop-on-black homicides: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
The video of the Alton Sterling shooting – amid a voice yelling that Sterling had a gun – showed two white police officers with Sterling rather completely subdued and helpless before they shot him dead. Pulled over for a broken taillight and asked for his driver’s license, Castile promptly informed the officer – Jeronimo Yanez – that there was a gun in the vehicle but that he had a permit for that weapon. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, began recording the incident with her smart phone. Castile, a popular school nutrition supervisor, told the officers her would produce the permit… and was fatally hit with multiple shots… as he was attempting to produce the documentation.
All of the officers in the above shootings were put on administrative leave. The Justice Department announced that they were mounting civil rights probes. State officials were equally shocked. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, shaken by the video, stated the obvious: “Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white? ... I don’t think it would have.” In a bizarre twist of fate, the National Rifle Association stayed silent as one of its own, Castile with his permitted gun, was gunned down for precisely the reason the NRA says it exists. But then Castile was black.
Speaking from a NATO meeting in Europe, President Obama commented: “When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts, and that should trouble all of us…This is not just a black issue, not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we all should care about.” Black America seethed, but protests were mostly peaceful… the country seemed to be listening. And then, on July 7th, came the deadliest assault on American law enforcement since 9/11/01. Dallas. Before he died, sniper Johnson made it clear that “black lives matter,” that he was taking revenge for recent police shootings… angry at white people, particularly cops.
Federal and state leaders, from the President to the Attorney General to the Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, decried the killings. Presidential campaigns were suspended. Donald Trump expressed his condolences and called for “confidence of our people to be safe and secure in their homes and on the street… It is a coordinated, premeditated, assault on the men and women who keep us safe… We must restore law and order.” Hillary Clinton tweeted: “I mourn for the officers shot while doing their sacred duty to protect peaceful protesters, for their families & all who serve with them.”
It is impossible quickly or easily to reverse the chronic prejudices, unacceptable police attitudes and practices of too many officers, or the social system that has moved inner city black neighborhoods from impoverished areas where most children were born within a marital unit to hopeless communities of mostly single parents and too many unemployable men.
We’ve seen riots. Shootings. Things have gotten a whole lot worse. Meanwhile, under pressures which prioritize military expenditures and building prisons over schools and social programs with hope at their core – a neo-conservative definition of “austerity” – the belief in a fair and just future in inner city neighborhoods has dropped to unprecedented lows. In a vicious circle of expectations, we made these communities less viable and then have exacerbated the problem by arresting and criminalizing the principal elements of those neighborhoods capable of reversing the downswing.
This problem isn’t going away any time soon. It’s going to take a long time, a lot of money and a massive change of attitude across the land to undo the social damage we have done. Or we will in fact have Helter Skelter.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while there is no excuse on earth that justifies Micah Johnson’s systematic slaughter, if black lives mattered more, some blue lives might be alive today.