Personal Reflections

Painful Events

erase violence mervyn kurlansky

Painful Events

by Michael Gilbert, Executive Director

The week of July 4, 2016 was heart breakingOn Tuesday (July 5, 2016) Alton Sterling, a father of five, was killed by a police officer in Baton Rouge, LA in a confrontation over selling CD's outside a convenience store.  The next day (July 6, 2016) Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer in Falcon Heights, MN (a suburb of Minneapolis) after a traffic stop for a broken tail light. They were loved and their lives mattered.

Then on Thursday evening (July 7, 2016) there was a mass shooting that killed five police officers -- Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith and Lorne Ahrens and wounded seven other officers -- in Dallas, TX -- as they ran toward the danger, doing their job and serving their community.  They were loved and their lives mattered.

The ambush came as thousands of demonstrators began to disperse at the end of a peaceful day protesting police violence.  Their march against police use of force had been been protected by police.  It was then that the shots rang out - killing and wounding the officers.  The evidence now suggests that the shooter's motivation may have been revenge against the police for the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and other people of color killed in confrontations with police over the years. 

On July 17 there was a second ambush of police that left three officers dead and three more wounded.  The officers killed were Montrell L. Jackson, Matthew Gerald, and Brad Garafola.  The shooter's motivation appears to be revenge for police violence.  He deliberately and intentionally targeted police officers.  These officers were serving their community.  They were family men with children.  The youngest, Montrell Jackson, had a four month old son.  They were loved.  They were respected by their community.  They deserved to come home that day. 

We understand that police on occasion need to use force, even lethal force, in response to an immediate threat to public safety.  We know that most officers exercise their authority judiciously - in a careful, respectful, thoughtful and responsible manner.  We need them. 

Yet, these realities should not blind us to injustice committed in the name of "justice" when force, particularly lethal force, is used in questionable, excessive or unnecessary ways by someone wearing a badge.  This is particularly important with lethal force which disproportionately impacts people of color.  Responsible citizenship calls on us to speak out, demonstrate and challenge disparate impacts of policing and the criminal justice system as a whole.  This is what the demonstrators in Dallas were doing when the shots by the sniper rang out.

Police leaders and street level officers need to face up to some "hard and uncomfortable truths" (Center for Policing Equity, University of California) about law enforcement and its disproporate impacts on people of color.  These disparate effects have long been recognized as unjust and discriminatory within communities of color.  Such disparities are now widely recognized as unjust and discriminatory in the larger society and undercut both the legitimacy and role of police in society.  It also fosters the kinds of oppositional attitudes associated with thoughts of revenge against police.  This appears to be what motivated the ambush on police officers in Dallas.  

The inappropriate use of force by police against people of color, as FBI Director Comey so eloquently pointed out a year ago, is largely driven by sloppy and stereotypic thinking by some in law enforcement organizations.  All too often this type of thinking is rooted in prejudicial beliefs and attitudes about race, ethnicity and class.  

There is no justification for the violent actions of the sniper in Dallas.  It was a heinous act of misplaced vengeance that took the lives of five officers and wounded seven others.  Each officer ran toward the gun fire, saving others.  Yet, it appears that desire for revenge against police was the shooter's motive.  Desire for revenge is a common and very human emotion.  The destructive effects of this particular emotion can be seen daily around the world.

Rev. Martin Luther King noted that: 

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to the night already devoide for stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness:  Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.

Preventing both questionable use of force incidents by police and revenge driven violence against police will require continuous efforts and investment in building just, fair and equitable communities.  In communities of color, this will require: creating trust between residents and justice systems; taking consistent steps over time to repair harms to people and damaged relationships; policing in respectful and culturally sensitive ways; creating co-equal partnership between residents, police and the justice system; reducing the impact of adverse social conditions and circumstances in impoverished neighborhoods dealing with high crime rates; and, reducing both disproportionate police contact and the use of force by police.

Solutions to violence in America will not be found in simplistic calls for more aggressive enforcement, oppressive policies or, as some would suggest, greater access to guns. 

When peace comes, it will most likely be found through the use of relational approaches as a response to conflicts, crime and social problems (i.e., community and restorative justice) that promote understanding, tolerance and love.  It will be through the creation of "right relationships" between people and institutions despite differences by race, ethnicity, culture, religion or class.  It will be through person-to-person interaction, dialogue, and engagement.  It will be through mutual respect and dignity; persistent efforts to repair harms between people and groups; and, steady work to create safe, livable, just and equitable communities. 

We have a long way to go -- but it is achievable.

It starts with YOU.

Envision a different future and take one step every day to realize that future.