race relations

The Better Angels of Our Nature

I’m sitting in the clogged arteries of the Southern California freeway system like I do every afternoon for an hour-sometimes more.  Titus Andronicus’ Four Score and Seven is blaring on the radio as loud as I can take it.  That’s what I do when I need to feel angry.  It’s a trick I learned on deployment.  You build up heavy walls around the sadness and anger of being away from family, in shitty burnt out places around death and killing and societal destruction.  But it’s in there somewhere.  And if you don’t let it out, it grows.  Bathing in a beautiful angry song, so loud your ears feel like they’re going to bleed is one way I learned to do it.

I tend not to let this stuff bother me too much.  I write about it, because I think about it-and I can’t stop.  Objectively, with an eye towards solution or progress, but I don’t get outraged.  The other night hurt though. Sitting at dinner with family, my sister-in-law showed me the news on her phone-dead police officers in Dallas.  That one, I couldn’t shake.  I didn’t sleep well.  It was with me all day, distracting me.  Somewhere there was anger inside.  So I got it out.

I pulled into my driveway and turned off my car.  Silence for a minute or two before I go back into the bedlam that is a house of three young boys, and a no doubt exhausted wife by now. Before I go though, I grab the ratty red notebook on the seat next to me and write down some thoughts.  The thoughts that will be the basis for what you are reading right now.  The anger isn’t gone.  But it’s tired now after I let it run for a bit. It’s no longer driving my thoughts.  I’m done with the primal part of my brain, the basic one I share with the other creatures on this planet, for now.  The part that makes me human, rational thought, takes over.  Because outrage isn’t enough.  It never has been.  And never will be.

It wasn’t enough to throw 92,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor.  If we stopped there, perhaps we’d be voting on Brexit too.  But we didn’t.  It took organization-a congress, and thoughtful expression.  It took the clear articulation of the idea of equality coupled with inalienable rights to create a rational argument for change that was so powerful that it would create the standard for world governing for the next 200 years.  We had to use our thoughts.  Not just our rage.

It wasn’t enough to raise an army and fight to abolish slavery and preserve the union.  That war was won as much by thoughtful legislation and a visionary grasp on the Constitutional powers granted to the executive branch of our government.  By the wisdom of the Emancipation Proclamation and passing the 13th Amendment three months before the war was over.  Again, anger, rage and even patriotism weren’t  enough.

It wasn’t enough just to march in Selma.  And to sit in at white only establishments and to be Freedom Riders. The end of segregation had already been mandated by the Supreme Court a decade earlier, but thoughtful, thorough, sweeping legislation was still required.  Men like Dr. King understood it and as much as his message of peaceful resistance was key to the movement, his thought leadership and partnership with the government drove the comprehensive legislation that forced legal change.  Cultural change begrudgingly followed.

I’m going to be a little hard on the Black Lives Matter movement, if a 40 year old white guy might be permitted to do that for a second.  Rest assured, I’m a card carrying dyed in the wool supporter of the cause.  If you doubt it, I’d ask you to read the content on this site over the last 18 months.  I’m going to be hard on our movement, that’s right our movement, because I want it to succeed. And success, to me, actually looks like more to me than the prosecution of law enforcement officers that shoot black Americans.  Because that’s really just the tumor.  The disease is a broader lack of equal treatment within the criminal justice system. That’s what I want to fix.

I want the true realization of the intent of the 14th Amendment-equal treatment under the law.  Which means sentencing, rehabilitation, jury selection, judiciary conduct, the whole thing.  All of it needs to be addressed.  Because the outcomes are so slanted right now, we either believe that one race is inferior and less able to live in our society, or we have a system that needs comprehensive overhaul.  And since I find the former intellectually and morally offensive, I’m willing to fight like hell for the latter.  

So here’s the criticism.  I don’t see that right now from the Black Lives Matter movement.  And we need to.  We have the nation’s attention.  We’ve created the awareness and required outrage.  If we think that what comes next is the responsibility of someone else, then we don’t have a political movement. We have a website.

So what does that look like?  First, I’d like to commend the movement leadership for swift unequivocal condemnation of the Dallas murders.  The lack of hesitation on that was critical. Those were important words.  I don’t hold the Black Lives Matter movement responsible for what happened in Dallas.  But I am going to hold us accountable for helping stop it from happening again. Not because I believe that BLM should feel an overwhelming sense of brotherhood and union with law enforcement.  Because I want the movement to succeed.

One of my foundational beliefs is that our nation’s singular civic failure, the one we’ve paid and continue to pay the price for today, was our failure to insist on equal treatment in the eyes of the law for all races upon our inception.  But not everyone feels that way.  And as much as they ought to, you can’t make them.  Our movement absolutely depends on the marginally invested and principally undecided to give voice to our cause.  And we’re at a critical juncture in the days and weeks after Dallas where we risk losing them.

This brings an all too familiar feeling to me.  When I served in Iraq, one of the fun activities that I took part in was combing through the aftermath of suicide bombings.  Sifting through pictures of the carnage, sometimes the body parts themselves has an impact.  Women, children and others blown to bits-literally.  And it makes you ask the question, how can anyone support this?  Rationally you can’t. Sometimes, the local leaders would publicly condemn the acts with their words.  But when it came to supporting us to stop the next one, we didn’t get much.  Because they didn’t really mean it.  Deep down inside, they felt that the people involved got what they deserved.  Or that if they didn’t deserve it, it wasn’t their fault-it was ours.  So words were all we ever got.  We never got action to stomp out the ideology wherever it was found.  To make it taboo to even entertain such thoughts.

Right now, the leaders of our movement are saying the words, but it won’t be enough.  If we aren’t partnering with law enforcement and proactively smashing rhetoric and sympathy towards those who commit violence against cops, then we are accountable for what happens next.  And if we can’t muster up enough sympathy towards those in uniform to do that, and I understand that it is really hard right now to do that for some, then don’t rely on sympathy.  Rely on utility.  Because there’s another extremely unfair reality to our cause.  One we don’t want to admit and may feel is horribly misguided.  But it’s true.  It’s this.

A good cop is more important to your average American then our movement is.  And by average I mean law abiding, not racially motivated, any race American.  They care more about good, honest law enforcement officers than they do about our movement.  It may feel insensitive. But that’s how it works. People in large numbers behave in a way that suits their interest.  And those people aren’t getting shot at traffic stops.  Or unfairly sentenced.  Or pulled over for a “dim tail light”.  But they do rely on law enforcement.  So if average Joe American thinks for one second, that the Black Lives Matter movement, our movement, is in any way supporting violence towards police, pack it up.  It’s over.  No change.  No progress.  Another 50 years of what we have now.

Here’s the point.  You have America’s attention.  You’ve had it for over a year.  And when I’m on the website I don’t see the way ahead.  I don’t see partnerships with law enforcement and government.  I don’t see recommendations for legislation that will help that.  When I watch these horrible videos, I see tactically unsound, inexperienced officers, scared out of their mind behaving differently to black Americans then they are to white ones. There are tangible things to demand that can help. Things like mandated personal cameras, federal oversight on all police involved shooting investigations, reviews of sentencing for minorities, standardized tactical training.  You can partner with law enforcement to figure out how to propose this stuff.  And you can politically organize to demand it.

If you’ve lost faith in your representation to facilitate that legislation, I’ll give you a place to start to figure out how to change that.  Go look at the NRA’s website.  And then go look at the Black Lives Matter site.  When you do a Google search for NRA, the sole paid site, above the general results is a page for membership sign up.  Nothing else.  Below, on the official page there’s instructions on how to organize against representatives that don’t support their movement.  It’s scary effective. And if we’re going to be successful, we have to be that good.

This is the singular political debate of our time.  There are shiny objects of immigration and terrorism but the racial divide in our country is destroying us. Economically.  Culturally.  Functionally.  And one of the great pillars of our dysfunction is unequal treatment in the eyes of the law for minorities.  The Black Lives Matter movement has the nation’s attention on it.  We’ve effectively spread awareness. And like for any just cause, the outrage was the easy part.  Americans will take care of that on their own.  It’s time to engage that part of our minds that makes us humans.  We have to call on “The Better Angels of Our Nature” as Lincoln put it, as he spoke of a future of unity in the face of dire times.  Outrage is never enough.  It never has been.

This cannot be the beginning of it.  It must be the end.  Or we have no hope of progress.

3 replies »

  1. BKM is not respected and for good reason. Remember the marchers chanting about and urging death to police. The public does.
    Having spent a lifetime in the criminal justice system, your and others’ comments about disparities in the system are greatly overblown. Granted any racial discrimination is unaceptable. And every gov’t system can and should be more sensitive to race. But not every misdeed is due to racial motive conscious or not.
    Two points about police. News like the never ending violence and black on black murders in Chicago ( somehow strangely missing in the media dialogue) and continuing in Atlantic City and elsewhere make police on edge when confronting a black man.
    And police rightly or not gov’t officials are not supportive except when 5 police are killed, only then.
    The line between anarchy and civility is thin. Police are starting to overlook “the small stuff” because it isn’t worth the risk of a career being in jeopardy. If that becomes widespread we are in real trouble.
    Related to above is this morning news from the atty representing the Min officer explaining in detail facts which if true ( and that is an IF ) dispel the racial story behind what happened.
    So as far as BLM goes, it does a disservice to advancing greater racial sensitivity.
    That might be another story if the effort was more geographically focused and also spoke about the black on black violence and deterioration of the family, children out of wedlock, single parents, all occurring with a much higher frequency in black communities.

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    • Thanks for reading and contributing to the discussion. First, I’d like to say that I believe that you’re actually making the similar argument that I am, from a different POV. That the movement cannot be narrowly focused and that any support for violence against law enforcement is unacceptable and de-legitimizes the entire effort. In response to over stating the disproportionate experience African Americans have within the justice system, I’ll say this. I think the impact of overt racism may be overstated-if you could snap your fingers and make it go away, I don’t know what the impact is but my guess tells me marginal. But the data behind sentence lengths, death penalty and conviction rates is pretty hard to ignore. The cause is a fair debate and I’m advocating for that being a part of the dialogue this group leads. Lastly, I don’t have any idea how our urban police force is expected to effectively police our urban environments. I addressed that in a separate publishing. As you point out, they are working in war zones. Which leads to outcomes like we see. As always, your input is welcome and appreciated.

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  2. I would love to agree with you but there is a fundumental problem that will not go away. It is the attitude that if you are pulled over or your motives questioned you argue and push back on the police. If you push back hard enough you will be dead and it seems that they have own idea of what is acceptable behavior. If you question those ideas you are a racist.
    The bottom line is that their community absolutely must take the responsibilty for changing their militant attitude about the police. The left has unknowingly fostered this attitude by providing for their needs without holding anybody responsible for the unintended results.

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