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The violence won't end until we stop believing it's cops vs black people

In the wake of the Dallas shootings, Larry Donnelly argues that there needs to be a fundamental shift around the Black Lives Matter debate.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

HERE IN IRELAND, we again awoke today to the news of another gun massacre in the United States.

This time, five police officers in Dallas, Texas were killed and several others wounded by sniper fire at a rally held to protest the shootings of two African American males by police officers.

While details of this horrific night in Dallas are still emerging, three of the individuals believed to have been behind it are in custody. A fourth is dead.

It goes without saying that our thoughts and prayers are with the police officers and their families, friends and colleagues.

Black Lives Matter movement

The rallies in Dallas and in numerous other American cities, under the umbrella of the Black Lives Matter movement, were attended by thousands of African Americans and others who can’t fathom why seemingly innocent young black men continue to be targeted by police and treated as if they are guilty until proven innocent.

In recent years, this conscious or subconscious bias, which some activists and academics claim has always existed, has given rise to a series of truly grotesque, violent incidents.

In this context, and leaving to one side the frightening details of what exactly happened in Dallas for a moment, it is imperative that all Americans revisit the vexed and intertwined issues of race and policing.

Need for considered debate

It is even more imperative that this collective revisit be both sustained and considered. The early reaction to the Dallas massacre has been anything but.

For example, former Illinois Congressman and nationally syndicated talk show host, Joe Walsh, has sent a series of tweets since the news broke last night. In one, which he subsequently deleted, he stated that:

This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.

He has since argued that:

10 Cops Shot. You did this Obama. You did this liberals. You did this #BLM (Black Lives Matter). Time to defend our Cops. Wake up.

And:

Obama says cops are racist so 2 uneducated black thugs shoot 10 Dallas Cops tonight, killing 4. Wake up silent majority. Stand w our Cops.

Disturbing for those attuned to the rhetoric of right wing demagogues, is the last sentence of that tweet: “Wake up silent majority. Stand w(ith) our Cops.”

While all of Walsh’s tweets garnered hundreds of re-tweets and likes, this last one was re-tweeted and liked by thousands.

Notwithstanding protestations to the contrary, the term “silent majority” is a coded reference to white Americans. When Walsh employed it, he was appealing to them and to their worst fears and instincts.

The fact is that a sizable majority of white Americans reflexively side with the police in their dealings with the black community. Many believe that the police working in predominantly African American areas have no other option than to kill or maim first before they themselves are killed or maimed. Unfortunately, some in law enforcement share that belief.

The diametrically opposite viewpoint is held by virtually all African Americans. John Lewis, the veteran Georgia Congressman and legendary civil rights campaigner, succinctly expressed his own sentiments in the wake of the Minnesota and Louisiana shootings.

How many more people of colour will be shot and killed by law enforcement officers before we act to protect all of our citizens?

His is the core question that America must answer. It will not be answered by those who would exploit it and this manifest crisis for illegitimate ends.

Two conflicting realities

Speaking this morning, President Obama highlighted the complexity of this crisis. He alluded to two conflicting realities.

First, there is a serious problem with respect to how African Americans are dealt with by law enforcement and the criminal justice system more broadly.

Second, police officers have an extremely difficult job to do and most of them do it extraordinarily well in often trying circumstances.

When whites dwell almost exclusively on the latter and blacks dwell almost exclusively on the former, how can the US reconcile what would appear to be irreconcilable?

Reaching an answer to this question is a very tall order. But one small suggestion from this side of the Atlantic might bear thinking about.

In the US, the police are labelled a force; here, the police are labelled a service. There is only one word of a difference – and it may be argued that this is trifling – but a gulf in perception flows from it. Critics could rightly, albeit rather glibly, opine that enforcement ordinarily trumps service in American policing.

People in disadvantaged areas of the US, typically heavily populated by African Americans and/or Latinos, see the police as the enemy. And in light of their training, it is not surprising that some law enforcement officers, whether from the outset or thereafter, regard the people in the cities and towns they work with hostility.

It is only when this gap – a dichotomy in perception – is more fully bridged that the current crisis can be adequately resolved. Bridging the gap will necessitate a lot of time, concerted effort, strong leadership, extensive resources, as well as a fundamental shift of hearts and minds.

When President Obama was elected in 2008, some optimistically heralded the dawn of a post-racial America. Sadly, they have been proven wrong.

The country of my birth is still divided along racial lines to a significant extent. Even more sadly, when it comes specifically to race and policing – as repeated killings of innocent black men by law enforcement officers and last night’s events in Dallas demonstrate – the US seems destined to remain hopelessly and irretrievably divided for the foreseeable future.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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