Dallas, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights. In a span of three consecutive days last week, those cities added unimaginable weight to our national mourning and pain, our collective rage and confusion about violence, guns and racial harmony in our communities.
On Thursday night in Dallas, at a Black Lives Matter rally, a sniper killed five Dallas police officers and wounded seven others. The suspect was later killed by a robot-directed bomb, but not before he told police he was out to kill white people and, in particular, white cops — supposedly in retaliation for the events of the past week that left two black men dead at the hand of police.
On Wednesday an officer fatally shot Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, near St. Paul, while he was in a car with a woman and her young daughter. The woman livestreamed on Facebook the aftermath of the shooting as Castile died in the car. A day earlier, Alton Sterling was shot in Louisiana after being held to the pavement by two white officers. That, too, was captured on a cellphone video.
Expressions of outrage and horror were rampant on social media and in news conferences.
“Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?” Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton asked at a news conference after Castile’s shooting on Thursday. “I don’t think it would have.”
On Friday morning, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “Our profession is hurting. Dallas officers are hurting. We are heartbroken. There are no words to describe the atrocity that occurred to our city. All I know is that this must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens.”
Perhaps there is less to say about these terrible incidents this past week than there is to feel — to take a moment to reflect and express our sadness and pain. We are grieving for all these losses. They are all our losses — collectively. It is not one side against the other. Or, at least, our hope is that’s not what this becomes.
It is too early to tell whether the shootings in Dallas, along with those in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights last week, will change anything, if it will alter how we think and behave going forward. Amid calls for unity, there is heavy fear the recent spate of killings might sow division and hate deeper, encouraging the us-versus-them mentality.
Here in San Francisco, we have not been immune from such sorrow and loss. In the past year, three people of color have been killed by the San Francisco Police Department in circumstances that have not been fully disclosed. As a city, we are still awaiting investigations into the deaths of Mario Woods, killed by police last December; Luis Gongora, killed by police in April; and Jessica Williams, shot to death in May trying to flee police in a stolen car. Former S.F. Police Chief Greg Suhr resigned hours after Williams’ death.
Suhr’s successor, Interim Chief Toney Chaplin, has promised quicker reforms and better discipline in the department.
On Wednesday, San Francisco police defused a tense hours-long standoff with an armed man in the mid-Market area without any shots fired. Chaplin credited the force’s adoption of new de-escalation tactics for the peaceful outcome. “[We] created a situation where this gentleman walked away with his life,” Chaplin said.
It was a brief moment of optimism in an otherwise dark week. Hopefully, it is something to build upon.
“This is not about police violence, this is a national epidemic of gun violence,” Chaplin said Friday, acknowledging, “This is a challenging time for law enforcement.” He added that the events leading up to and including Dallas only “highlight the need for reforms.”
On Thursday evening, just a few hours before the Dallas shootings, I was talking with my wife after our kids were in bed about death of Castile, the video of his death and the fact that Diamond Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter was in the car at the time. The horror of every aspect of what we knew about the incident at that point seemed beyond comprehension.
“We are so lucky our kids are not black,” my wife said. “Can you imagine?”
No, I can’t really imagine, I can only scratch the surface of understanding, but it is undeniable that it is indeed a privilege to be white in this country; the advantages and safety it affords are immeasurable. It is profoundly unfair and unjust that we as a white family have a reasonable expectation of safety for our kids that black families understandably do not share. It is a nation, unequal, and for that no one is better off.
The events of the past week — following years of strife, in this city and many others, concerning police bias and gun violence — have made this feel like an unfortunate time for people of all races in the United States. Right now, it is difficult to believe we have anything resembling a collective fortune at all in this country. It feels increasingly otherwise, that the foundational tenet that we are all one nation is nothing but a dream that cannot hold, leaving us a tattered country driven to division and despair.
We hope this is not our future.
It is up to all of us, citizens and police alike, to work against that pull, to take care of ourselves and each other, to not accept this as the new normal, to stay aware and engaged, and to hold off cynicism especially at a time when, no matter your political inclinations, giving into cynicism seems an obvious option.