The Dallas Tragedy and Coalition Politics

Pardon the below sprawling column. It’s a bit jumbled because I was a bit jumbled when I wrote the bulk of it Saturday night.

This is a difficult moment. Black Lives Matter demonstrators, their supporters and allies are grieving the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. By all accounts – including now-ubiquitous phone videos – Sterling and Castile died horribly and unjustifiably at the hands of police. Meanwhile, the law enforcement community grieves the murders of Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, who died horribly at the hands of a sniper, who also wounded seven officers.

I identify with angry and grieving BLM protesters and share much of their broad policy agenda. I also identify with angry and grieving police officers, who have such an essential and difficult role in hard-hit urban communities. Which is to say that I cannot fully or unconditionally identify with either side in the customary ways demanded by the antagonists in polarized times.

I shared the below remarks in draft with someone who identifies with BLM and with someone else who identifies with a law enforcement perspective. Both were offended by what I wrote. Both told me in no uncertain terms that this essay demonstrates my moral cowardice in its equivocation. On one side, I stand accused of failing to bluntly condemn anti-police behavior. On the other, I stand accused of tone policing and of a failure to be a proper ally…

Let me first dispense with preliminaries. This week the nation is focused on the deaths of seven people. Each of these deaths was horrific and frightening. Each of these seven human beings is deeply missed. Yet these killings were also importantly different. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were two African-American men apparently killed without justification by agents of the state. Based on what we know, Castile and Sterling were only the latest victims in a long story whose origins predate the American republic.

Officers Ahrens, Krol, Smith, Thompson and Zamarripa were murdered by a violent extremist with a semiautomatic rifle who set out to slaughter white police officers and did so. As far as we know, he represented no organization or cause wider than himself. If there are immediate political or policy implications to his specific crime, they concern whether different approaches to gun policy might have made such mass shootings less likely or less lethal.

Whatever intemperate politicians or FOX News commentators might suggest, Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be blamed for the killing of these five officers. BLM is an angry and messy, nonviolent movement whose peaceful protests have brought crucial issues of police misconduct to national attention. Many issues highlighted by Black Lives Matter – force mitigation, the need to reform defective police collective bargaining agreements and toxic practices such as revenue-oriented policing – have become central topics for policing reforms at every level of American government. Readers who doubt this might compare this policy document by Campaign Zero and compare it to Chicago’s exhaustive Police Accountability Task Force report issued earlier this year.

As Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told Chris Hayes Friday night,

Black Lives Matter has never, ever called for the murder of police officers. What we have said over and over again is that it is time in this country for policing to be accountable, transparent and responsible. That’s not rhetoric. That is what communities in the United States want to see from the people who protect and serve them. And so quite frankly, we can, at the same time as we grieve the loss of life of several officers who were killed last night, we can also push to demand that there be accountable, responsive, transparent policing…

Many of my friends and colleagues in law enforcement – alongside many millions of Americans – can’t seem to hear that. They believe that Black Lives Matter protestors nihilistically oppose all policing, want to hurt police officers, are not concerned by the widespread violence occurring in many low-income minority communities.

Widely-held misperceptions among police are particularly destructive. These sadly reflect the psychological distance between many in law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect. Anyone who spends time (say) on Chicago’s hard-hit south and west sides should understand that many of the activists and community leaders involved in BLM are deeply involved in the hard work of violence prevention. (I recently attended a community march against guns and gang violence. Many of the same people chanting “Put down the guns,” were chanting “No justice, no peace,” a moment later. I’ve run into staff members of violence prevention activities at many protest events.)

Simply put, there is no contradiction in promoting violence reduction and accountable, effective and legitimate law enforcement. We must pursue both, or we will achieve neither. That’s where we are in the America of 2016.

America has been making progress in recent years. 2016 has been a tough year. Yet community violence remains far below the levels of twenty years ago. Violence against police is at historically low levels, too. It’s hard in many ways for police across America right now. It’s hard for bad cops. It’s hard for good cops, too. There’s no denying that reality. But there is no “war on cops.” Policing is far safer than it was twenty or thirty years ago.

This weekend’s atrocity marked an agonizing exception to that. The Dallas sniper executed precisely the nightmare scenario most feared on both sides of the law enforcement political divide. In the words of my friend Richard Yeselson, this moment demands a blend of strategic savvy and humane empathy that few of us could muster under the best of circumstances.

These are not the best of circumstances.  My Facebook is alight with inflammatory statements by police union leaders who predictably excoriated African-American protestors for creating a climate that abetted these killings. The extreme uncivil stance of these leaders undermines police legitimacy more than anything Black Lives Matter could do. I won’t even dignify the extreme voices directed at President Obama. Such strident rhetoric angers protesters in the street. It also alienates a broad range of civic leaders and policymakers who fully recognize the challenges faced by officers every day, but who also recognize that the political and policy reality of urban policing has changed. Law enforcement must be done differently and better. This includes acknowledging many wrongs that have stoked the protests we are seeing.

It would be a huge mistake for members of the policing community to take refuge in the Dallas killings in efforts to evade overdue reforms. The best police leaders understand that they must show genuine empathy towards aggrieved people who are drawn to protest, and that they must visibly demonstrate that empathy by addressing obvious long-standing abuses. Other police leaders misread the moment, sometimes with political incompetence bordering on the comic. Anyone who has studied the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement will recognize the optics and likely political consequences of police over-reaction exemplified by the iconic Baton Rouge photograph at the top of this posting. It was taken by Jonathan Bachman on behalf of Reuters. I hope no other photographers were hoping for Pulitzers. I suspect we will hear much more about the Baton Rouge Police Department in the coming days, not all of it good.

This is a testing time for the Black Lives Matter movement, too. Its protesters have seized real influence and a real platform. New power brings new opportunities and responsibilities to form new connections that cross familiar lines. BLM needs new allies. It needs to find ways to become a new ally, including with more moderate and incremental constituencies that regard police reform  as one key issue alongside others, who might be positively engaged.

Coalition politics is difficult but essential. The real political fights over public safety won’t be decided by Black Lives Matters and its closest allies. These fights will no longer decided by police and their most strident defenders, either. They have lost significant leverage because of BLM’s organizing and because of the sheer accumulated weight of shocking phone videos. The political balance is now held by the broad mass of Americans of every background who admire and depend on police, are wary of any radical anti-police agenda but who cannot un-see the Laquan McDonald or Walter Scott videos, and so many others.

This political challenge entails a tough task to young activists who provide the sinews of the BLM movement. Many are angry and mourning. They have serious grievances against police, yet now may be looked to expectantly to memorialize the Dallas police dead, to empathize with the “good police” when bad police may be foremost in their minds. That challenge is especially great when the humane empathy demanded of these young activists is precisely what’s been denied to many of them by the wider society and specifically by our criminal justice system.

Like every sprawling grassroots movement, Black Lives Matter also doesn’t speak with one voice. It’s made some mistakes and can be tone-deaf at times, too. Statements like the one below provide one example of an opportunity squandered. Perhaps I am making too much of something like this. You the reader can decide.

The Black Lives Matter Network advocates for dignity, justice, and respect

In the last few days, this country witnessed the recorded murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, the latest victims in this country’s failed policing system. As we have done for decades, we marched and protested to highlight the urgent need to transform policing in America, to call for justice, transparency and accountability, and to demand that Black Lives Matter.

In Dallas, many gathered to do the same, joining in a day of action with friends, family, and co-workers. Their efforts were cut short when a lone gunman targeted and attacked 11 police officers, killing five. 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.

Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it. Yesterday’s attack was the result of the actions of a lone gunman. To assign the actions of one person to an entire movement is dangerous and irresponsible. We continue our efforts to bring about a better world for all of us.

There’s nothing factually incorrect in the above sentences that mention and dispatch the Dallas tragedy. It’s what’s missing that is jarring. These words express too little tactile connection to five human beings cut down while patrolling an actual BLM event. It would have cost nothing – it would have taken away nothing from the victims of police violence – for a movement that employs the hashtag #SayTheirNames to specifically mourn officers Ahrens, Krol, Smith, Thompson and Zamarripa by their names, to embrace the wounded officers and bereaved families with greater attention and care.

To my eyes, this statement is pretty sparing in its humane empathy. It is transparently tactical, defensive and thus strategically unwise. BLM expresses deeply-felt sentiments of angry people who are hurting, who have good reason to be angry and hurting. This posture is necessary and powerfully human. Yet it is insufficient. Anger and hurt alone will not mobilize the crowd of ambivalent, potentially sympathetic onlookers in essential tasks of police reform. Indeed it may have the opposite effect,

BLM projects justified outrage that every movement must do to galvanize supporters and to raise the costs of maintaining unjust policies. Militant organizing works best when its expression is leavened with generous and universal impulses to defuse potential enemies. It’s especially important in this case to reach potential allies in the broader electorate and in the law enforcement community. As great improvements within the Dallas PD suggest, the reform project requires active engagement of police and of constituencies who might favor reform yet who are ambivalent and wary, too.

Distancing BLM from anti-police extremist violence is more politically necessary than it should be, since this movement does not advocate violence. But there is a brittle defensiveness among BLM activists that bears attention. It should not be hard to openly engage the families and friends of Dallas police officers who were murdered within direct eyeshot of many BLM activists. Embracing police victims and their families might debunk stereotypes about what militant activism is about. More important, it might display a largeness of spirit in short supply in America in this moment. Humane empathy is always wise. In this case, it is also a strategic imperative.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.