Making Sense of Dallas: Violence, Racism, and Guns

This week, three separate incidents have monopolized the headlines. Two separate police shootings of non-threatening black men in Louisiana and Minnesota brought activists out across the country, decrying the disproportionately violent and harsh treatment directed by police at people of color.

Then, last night in Dallas, at one of scores of marches against police brutality happening across the nation, at least one gunman ambushed police officers who were on scene to direct the march. The shooter killed five officers and injured 7 people, including both police and protestors. The primary gunman was killed by a bomb detonated remotely by the police, while another three suspects – with as of now unknown affiliation to the incident – remain in custody.

During the lengthy negotiations with police that led up to the detonation, the 25 year-old gunman identified as Micah Johnson expressed anger at the recent shootings, his frustration with the Black Lives Matter movement, and his desire to kill white officers in retaliation for recent events.

This week’s events – both delicate and difficult, dealing with some of the most heated debates of our times – have already stirred the pot, heightening tensions over guns and race during an already fraught political season.

The former House Representative Joe Walsh posted an ominous threat to Obama and Black Lives Matter activists, tweeting: “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”

By murdering officers as they helped facilitate the expression of protesters’ first amendment rights, Johnson and whoever else was involved in the heinous shooting in Dallas deserve unequivocal condemnation, and any surviving participates in the attack should be prosecuted.

The victims in Dallas deserve justice. So, too, do Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, the men shot to death in Louisiana and Minnesota respectively.

But understanding the complexity of this issue is difficult for many Americans. Consider the pandering of public figures like Walsh, whose vicious tweet itself deserves condemnation. The former congressman has leant his voice to a false narrative – just as the New York Post did with its cover this morning – that there is an unsealable divide in our country that will necessarily result in violent conflict. His pandering is reckless and, yes, racist. What exactly is “real America?” Are people who are outraged over senseless police violence directed at black people somehow outside of that classification?

As for rhetorical excess, it is worth mentioning the dehumanization that anti-police jargon generates. While police forces as institutions are flawed and some officers possess prejudice, police departments are run by many well-meaning people from all backgrounds and ethnicities who have families and aspirations. “Fuck the police” may be a cathartic chant, but it is reductive.

While politicians work to fit this week’s events into their narratives, it’s worth acknowledging the objective horror and injustice of violence generally, and gun violence specifically. It’s possible to both adamantly oppose racist violence against black citizens, and to also wholeheartedly oppose the exercise of violence against police officers, many of whom have provided countless hours of civic service for communities across the country.

At the heart of all of this rests that specter of American violence – the gun. As yet another week yields more gun deaths, the United States government cannot bring itself to define the issue in terms of public health. By granting adequate resources to studying and weeding out violence in our communities, we can look at the variegated factors that contribute to this persistent menace, instead of pitting Americans against each other and ignoring institutional flaws that perpetuate injustice.

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