‘America is weeping’ amid week of violence

Will Weissert
Associated Press

Dallas — Can this really be America in 2016?

Three tumultuous days have brought echoes of decades past and made clear a public that elected a black president hasn’t reconciled its fractured history with race, that a country that lived through unrest and assassinations in the 1960s and 1970s still bubbles with resentment and rage, and that bloody images of violent tragedy aren’t going away.

“America is weeping,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, reflecting an entire nation’s mounting anger, tension and despair.

It started Tuesday, with a familiar scene: A black man, on the ground, shot by police, with the incident captured on cellphone video. That killing, of a 37-year-old ex-convict named Alton Sterling, who was carrying a gun while selling CDs outside a Louisiana convenience store, ignited public outrage, and added Baton Rouge to a long list of places where the death of a black male at the hands of police has come under a cloud of suspicion.

Then came Wednesday.

In Falcon Heights, Minnesota, another black man was shot dead by an officer, this time after a traffic stop. As 32-year-old Philando Castile sat bloodied and dying, his girlfriend made a live broadcast on Facebook that gave an eerie look into the aftermath.

And then, like clockwork in a new deranged norm, came another evening, another night of tragedy.

As demonstrators amassed in Dallas on Thursday to mark what had transpired in the two preceding days, five police officers there to help keep the peace were shot and killed and seven other officers and two civilians were wounded. Authorities said it was the work of at least one sniper. The Army veteran, who was killed by police, had said he was upset by the recent shootings and wanted to kill whites, particularly white officers.

It was a devastating climax to three horrific days that Americans are struggling to understand.

The Dallas shooter had amassed a personal arsenal at his suburban home, including bomb-making materials, bulletproof vests, rifles, ammunition and a journal of combat tactics, authorities said Friday.

The man, identified as 25-year-old Micah Johnson, was killed by a robot-delivered bomb after the shootings, which marked the deadliest day for U.S. law enforcement since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In all, 12 officers were shot.

‘Evil always fails’

President Barack Obama and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked for the public’s prayers. In a letter posted online Friday, Abbott said “every life matters” and urged Texans to come together.

“In the end,” Abbott wrote, “evil always fails.”

Friday evening, the White House said Obama will cut short his current European trip and visit Dallas early next week.

After the attack — which unfolded just a few blocks from where President John F. Kennedy was slain in 1963 — Johnson tried to take refuge in a parking garage and exchanged gunfire with police, Police Chief David Brown said.

The suspect described his motive during negotiations and said he acted alone and was not affiliated with any groups, Brown said.

Johnson was black. Law enforcement officials did not disclose the race of all the dead officers.

The shooting began Thursday evening while hundreds of people were gathered to protest the killings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. Brown told reporters that snipers fired “ambush-style” on the officers. Two civilians also were wounded.

Authorities initially blamed multiple “snipers” for Thursday’s attack, and at one point said three suspects were in custody. But by Thursday afternoon, all attention focused on Johnson, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the entire attack appeared to be the work of a single gunman.

The nation’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, called for calm, saying the recent violence can’t be allowed to “precipitate a new normal.”

Kevin Boyle, an American history professor at Northwestern University, thought of the late 1960s and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, seeing “terrifying parallels” and “echoes for me of other really incredibly tense points.” The presence of video documentation of the incidents calls attention to strife that had previously existed only in agonizing private memories.”

“It’s not that the incidents are new,” he said, “it’s our ability to see them.”

Demonstrations were held in several other U.S. cities Thursday night to protest the police killings of two more black men: A Minnesota officer on Wednesday fatally shot Philando Castile while he was in a car with a woman and a child, and the shooting’s aftermath was livestreamed in a widely shared Facebook video. A day earlier, Alton Sterling was shot in Louisiana after being pinned to the pavement by two white officers. That, too, was captured on a cellphone video.

Scary sense of humanity

At the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., Kim Hernandez welled with tears Friday as she took stock of the week. “There’s just a really scary sense of humanity right now,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know how we can fix it, but it doesn’t seem like talking is working.”

At Bible Way Temple in Raleigh, North Carolina, Darnell Dixon Sr., the chief pastor, wondered why more positive change hasn’t come. He presided over the funeral of another black man who was shot by a white officer earlier this year, and was part of a dialogue with police that followed and brought him a sense of healing.

“I started feeling better,” he said. “But yesterday set me back. It bewildered me.”

This week’s killings come in the midst of a divisive presidential election, amid fears of terrorism and on the heels of the latest mass shooting that claimed 49 innocent lives at an Orlando nightclub.

If the gravity of it all seems clear, the road from here does not.

Does the assemblage of killings by police around the country and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement lead to more than candlelight vigils and calls for change? Does the anger that seemingly fueled the shootings in Dallas precipitate and lead to similar attacks on police akin to Black Panther-style violence of long ago?

Jeanine Bell, an Indiana University professor who authored “Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime,” said the week will not go down as a pivotal point unless it leads to substantive change by police that goes beyond simply diversifying forces and introducing anti-bias training.

“Until there is a call for reorganization of policing practices, not just small changes, then it’s very hard to call this a turning point,” she said.

Mayor Mike Rawlings said one of the wounded officers had a bullet go through his leg.

“He felt that people don’t understand the danger of dealing with a protest,” said Rawlings, who spoke to the officer. “And that’s what I learned from this. We care so much about people protesting, and I think it’s their rights. But how we handle it can do a lot of things. One of the things it can do is put our police officers in harm’s way, and we have to be very careful about doing that.”