Three Terrible Days of Violence
A Dallas police officer early in the morning on Friday, hours after a racially motivated shooting killed five other officers. PHOTOGRAPH BY LM OTERO / AP
In a single week, we have seen the spectacle of two black men killed by police and five police officers gunned down at a rally that was being held in response to those deaths. On Thursday, President Obama spoke of the incidents in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, saying, “When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts, and that should trouble all of us. This is not just a black issue, not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we all should care about.” Less than twenty-four hours later, he released a statement calling the shooting of eleven police in Dallas a “vicious, despicable, calculated attack upon law enforcement.” What began as a lethargic return to work following a holiday has devolved into an American crucible.
The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—captured on video and widely seen and shared—effectively turned the public into a national pool of eyewitnesses. Millions saw Sterling, supine in a parking lot, as multiple shots were fired into his body. As many saw a Facebook Live feed in which Diamond Reynolds, maintaining extraordinary composure, described the events leading to her boyfriend’s death—all while an agitated officer held her at gunpoint. Those deaths, coming in such close proximity, inspired protests across the country.
In Manhattan, hundreds of protesters marched from Union Square to Times Square, chanting “Fuck the police” and “Black lives matter.” At around eight in the evening, officers of the New York Police Department moved in and began arresting demonstrators who blocked traffic on Seventh Avenue and Forty-second Street. Similar, mostly peaceful protests took place in Boston and Washington, D.C. In Dallas, as many as a thousand people came to march down Main Street, in downtown, to demand police accountability. As that protest wound down, gunfire broke out, killing five officers and injuring seven others, as well as two civilians. A suspect—identified later as Micah X. Johnson, a twenty-five-year-old Army veteran—holed up in a parking garage in a standoff with police. The confrontation ended in Johnson’s death, by an explosive device delivered by a robot. At a press conference Friday morning, Dallas police said that the sniper was angry about the police killings of black men. “The suspect said he wanted to kill white people,” the Dallas police chief, David Brown, said. “Especially white officers.”
There are now three simultaneous investigations in three cities, with firearms the common thread in all of them. Sterling was shot following a shouted claim that he had a gun. Castile, according to his girlfriend, was shot multiple times shortly after informing a police officer that he was carrying a firearm for which he had a permit. (The events in Dallas are a particular banquet of horrors, the exchange of gunfire seemingly more befitting Syria than downtown in a major American city.)
There are few certainties, but the hypertensive reactions have already begun. CNN repeatedly compared the shootings to September 11th, a kind of sloppy fire-stoking that would lead one to believe that Al Qaeda had a specific grievance against American law-enforcement officers. The Drudge Report ran a banner headline saying, “Black Lives Kills Four Police Officers.” The Dallas press conference competed with a simultaneous one in Minnesota, where Castile’s family demanded justice and accountability for his death. The split-screen spectacle of those events—a mayor and police chief mired in grief in Dallas, a mother and girlfriend mourning in Minnesota—was like a riddle of causality.
Both the public and the police face a feedback loop of risk and danger.
This week has become a grotesque object lesson in gun culture, one that points to a conclusion that we could have and should have drawn long ago—that the surfeit of weapons at our disposal and the corresponding fears that they induce create new hazards. There is no telling how any of these specific horrors will be resolved. But here is what we do know: we live in an age of open-source terrorism.
Our inability to respond to mass shootings has meant that, eventually, even law enforcement would fall victim to one. The context of the conversation about police accountability has been irrevocably changed. Black lives matter, but reports that those words were uttered by a gunman in Dallas mean that any movement under that banner may well have met its end. And realism, in the face of tragedy, tells us that there is more ugliness in the offing.
Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2013, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.