Interim Chief Toney Chaplin stood at podium inside the Scottish Rite Masonic Center Friday afternoon and warned a group of teen cadets about the dangers of policing.
He was pointing to the five Dallas police officers shot and killed Thursday night as they patrolled a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, which had been called after the latest fatal shootings of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota.
The killings — by police and of police — have now raised questions in San Francisco about how such violence will impact police reforms.
While San Francisco is thousands of miles from these events, The City is no stranger to the issues that sparked them or the protests pushing elected officials to reform how officers patrol the streets.
All those elements have been present in San Francisco. Like the shootings by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, video played a key part in publicizing the killing of Mario Woods in December 2015. That killing sparked protests and political reaction as well as an eerie portent of the bloody streets of Dallas.
“At a certain point, an eye for an eye. If you keep killing black and brown people, white people gonna die in this city,” Daniel Landry told the San Francisco Police commission days after the Woods killing.
While police called for vigilance and officials called for unity as reforms push ahead, activists say the violence should not mar their message or their push for change. Despite these voices, some say the killings mark a distinct turn of events, one that will increase rancor and division even if anti-police violence was inevitable.
“The shooting of these police officers takes this situation to another level and I think it’s gonna be a very rancorous and poisonous level in American politics,” said Robert C. Smith, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University specializing in civil rights.
Such an outcome remains to be seen as local officials call for unity and calm.
“During times like these, we must come together as a community, as a city and as a nation. As Americans, we must condemn violence and stand together for peace,” Mayor Ed Lee said in a statement.
NAACP president Amos Brown echoed those remarks.
“At times like these leadership must do that which is for the good of all and not be deterred by any negative forces,” Brown said about police reforms.
But Brown also made sure to note that the two killings in Minnesota and Louisiana should not be forgotten in the wake of the five dead police officers.
For their part, police have condemned the killings and reassured citizens that The City is not a target.
“There are no threats directly related to the city and county of San Francisco at this time,” said Chaplin, who emphasized that officers will still be paired up as a security measure.
The Police Officers Association — also calling for our “better angels” to prevail– described the killings as a ratcheting up of the ongoing war against law enforcement.
“The war of words against law enforcement has now escalated into a war with snipers engaged in cold-blooded calculated attacks on public servants – good people who were just doing their jobs,” said union head Martin Halloran in a statement.
Activist groups, meanwhile, have not justified the killings but are standing their ground on the need for reform and remain focused on the two men killed by police in the days before the Dallas shootings.
For instance, Black Lives Matter’s Facebook page issued a statement warning that such violence should not derail their movement for police reform and accountability.
“This is a tragedy–both for those who have been impacted by yesterday’s attack and for our democracy. There are some who would use these events to stifle a movement for change and quicken the demise of a vibrant discourse on the human rights of Black Americans. We should reject all of this,” the statement reads.
At least one local activist group’s statement on the violence in Dallas took a harder line.
“Our hearts are heavy at this time and we know all too well about the continuous executions of black people in America and in San Francisco. San Francisco is not exempt. They continue to shoot us down like animals and use us as target practice. We have been fighting for justice for our brother, our son, Mario Woods for eight months,” reads a statement from the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition.
The group’s statement did not mention the police killed in Dallas.
SFSU’s Smith noted the ensuing debate will probably not speak to what many in the black community have already voiced.
“I assume the shooting of the police officers was in retaliation by those people to what happened the two days before,” said Smith. “I know there was a lot of anger and sentiment that enough is enough. That the shooting…was some kind of retaliation, some kind of payback, for what had happened in the previous two days.”
Smith said that among some in the black community this was seen as an inevitability since case after case of police killings — many caught on video — go unpunished.
“I would think this is more likely an act of rage,” said Smith. “He just couldn’t take it anymore.”
While these conversations are quietly going on among some black people, said Smith, many white people continue to deny that anything has gone wrong in these cases. That denial is paired with a viewpoint that racial injustice is a thing of the past, said Smith.
For that to change would require a transformation that is probably beyond most people, he added.
“To recognize that would require a kind of rethink of the nature of what white supremacy and racism is,” said Smith. “That is hard to do, recognize the crimes that ‘we’ have committed against black people.”
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