When Grits learned that America's latest mass shooting in Dallas targeted police officers, my first thought was "This could change everything." But with just a short time having passed to gain some perspective, now I fear it may change very little, instead helping set some unfortunate and regrettable dynamics into stone.
One of the reasons Grits waited until now to comment, and then reservedly: Many initial reports were flat-out wrong and I expect others will turn out to be false (much like the Darren Goforth murder in Houston, which stoked similar passions.) Police at first said there were multiple gunmen; there turned out to be one, just as with most mass shootings. The shooter was a military-trained, Afghan War vet armed with a semiautomatic rifle who'd apparently adopted a strain of black nationalist politics in the months before the event.
Three other people were detained who apparently had nothing to do with the episode, though initial reports made it sound like a coordinated group effort. Another protester had his photo posted as a "person of interest" on Twitter by DPD. Then when he turned himself in, police repeatedly lied to him during the interrogation trying to get him to admit to participating in the shooting. This is a legal tactic but also contributes to false confessions. Luckily, in this case the gentleman stood his ground and did not succumb. No one now believes he was involved.
All this to say, from what we now know, the shooter appears to have acted alone. He doesn't seem to have been part of the Black Lives Matter movement except as a sympathizer, and his actions have been roundly condemned by the movement's leadership. The BLM movement is no more responsible for the shooter's actions than the Dallas officers who were shot had anything to do with Alton Sterling's death.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick came out with ridiculous comments calling the protesters "hypocrites" for fleeing the scene when the shots rang out, expecting police to protect them. Never mind that police were ORDERING people to leave the scene. What foolishness! BLM isn't saying police shouldn't exist, of course; they're demanding equal protection under the law.
Also, painting protesters as cowards hardly jibes with other reports. One thinks of this image from the chaotic scene, where protesters gathered with a mother around a baby carriage as a human shield to rush the infant to safety.
By contrast, when an angry constituent fired off a gun outside the capitol in 2010, then-Sen. Patrick pushed for metal detectors to be installed at the entrances, creating long lines during the height of session and diminishing the "little d" democratic feel and function at the capitol. So it's not like he's one to run toward the gunshots!
Grits now thinks the Dallas tragedy will mostly solidify and entrench partisans' positions on police accountability matters instead of helping bridge the divide. Patrick's loathsome response and similar outbursts elsewhere tell me the knee-jerk impulse by reactionaries to police accountability protests will be to double down.
Meanwhile there's little evidence the Dallas police shootings will deter the Black Lives Matter movement from protesting and pushing for change. Indeed, from all I've seen, Grits expects the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings to escalate BLM efforts; people are still mad. Plus, there are already long-term media projects in the works which will focus even more attention on the issue, as well as more and more celebrities speaking out, which can drive daily news. Inevitably, shootings by police will continue, some will be problematic, a subset of those will be caught on video, and each of them will add to the drumbeat. Over time, expanded use of body cameras around the country plus the ubiquity of private cell phones mean more video will become available from unjustified shootings, spurring renewed calls for accountability. If that analysis is right, tensions will rise from here before they diminish.
Some days, it feels like all of this country's culture-war feuds are conflating around the issue of mass shootings. After the Orlando shootings, Lt. Gov. Patrick had to delete a Tweet which opined that "A man reaps what he sows," claiming it was pre-scheduled and unrelated to the murder of 50 gay club-goers. (He never did explain precisely WHO he meant would reap what they sowed, if not gay people.) But the truth is, Patrick wasn't the only arch-conservative in the strange position of wanting to preserve an anti-gay persona while condemning Muslim terrorism, however callous and contradictory such a stance may seem in the wake of a grievous tragedy.
Similarly, one of the young men killed this week was a concealed carry permit holder who was shot after he told the officer he had a legal firearm and reached for his ID. But it's not the NRA holding rallies across the country in response to his death, but Black Lives Matter! Then a sniper opens up in Dallas, spurring renewed calls for background checks and purchase delays, and now gun-rights advocates find themselves defending the circumstances that empowered a black nationalist, anti-police mass murderer to obtain a sniper rifle. To say politics makes strange bedfellows is an understatement.
Mass shootings tend to merge culture war issues because any time somebody hates a group of people, one way to express it is to take an assault rifle and kill as many of them as possible. And since hatred can run in nearly any direction and motivate people from a variety of ideologies, mass shootings can be motivated by any and all of the social pathologies one can imagine. That's an odd and interesting side effect of this ignominious trend.
This isn't a lot different from sending an armed drone in to kill the guy. One wonders, had they planned and trained for this or was it decided on the fly? Will this become more common in standoff situations going forward, or was it a one-off? From a normative standpoint, are there problems with police using robots designed for disarming bombs to deliver them? Grits is drawing no conclusion here, but I'm not the only one with questions.
Grits' pessimism that dynamics will soon change doesn't mean there haven't been important voices trying to lead a divided public in the right direction, including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who offered these words of wisdom in the tragedy's aftermath:
“The question is: Can we, as citizens, speak against the actions of a relatively few officers who blemish the reputation of their high-calling and at the same time, support and defend the 99% of officers who do their job professionally, honestly and bravely?” he said. “I think we can and I think we must.”He's right. But a major lesson from this episode is that a single fool with a penchant for action can undermine thousands of voices raised up calling for change. Messages of unity gel slowly, while messages of division seem to coalesce in an instant.
That said, Grits doesn't share the Marshall Project's pessimism that news from Dallas spells doom for criminal-justice reform writ large. In the long run, conversations which may eventually generate a new vision for policing - one that is safer for both officers and the public - are occurring largely beyond the media maelstrom. In small rooms at the state and local level, activists, police officers, and local politicians are debating specific reforms and finding a path to enact some of them. (BLM's Campaign Zero is tracking state law reforms here.) Progress is slow, we haven't seen much significant change yet, and the process is not for the attention-span challenged. But what's the alternative?
I'm not saying it's impossible to rein in needless police violence; it most certainly is possible, and we must. It just feels like we're on the front end of that debate, not anywhere close to its ultimate resolution.