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How We Got to Dallas: Fear, Racism and Guns

People look at handguns during The Nation

People look at handguns during The Nation’s Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

I listened to the sound of rapid gunfire over my laptop speakers, the horrific repeating bangs, at once tinny and distant, yet still somehow permeating the room. They interrupted the usual pattern of grief with which we’ve become all too familiar. A black man or woman is killed by police, a hashtag rolls across social media, racists jump in to defend white supremacy, and nothing ever changes. The murders in Dallas escalated these tensions, making it even harder to imagine a world in which we could stop the cycle of violence. One thing, though, remains clear–the unchecked proliferation of guns poisons our culture and accentuates our worst attributes. Fear is winning.

I’ve been writing about gun control over the past few years, focusing on mass shootings on college campuses. Each time there’s a horrific incident the gun lobby proposes a solution involving adding more firearms to the mix. It wants us to be afraid and to be armed. But the murders in Dallas show what happens when weapons of war are commonly available to people of ill intent, while the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile show what happen when police are terrified of black men with guns. Something has to change.

According to a friend of his, Sterling had just bought a handgun, illegally, because he was afraid of being robbed. Video shows his hands were nowhere near the firearm when he was shot, although officers naturally claim they were afraid he might reach for it. He was shot by police repeatedly, all of it caught on camera.

We don’t have video of Castile’s death, but just moments after he was shot, his girlfriend turned on her camera and calmly recorded as Officer Jeronimo Yanez swore, breathed as if he was panicked, and proclaimed, “I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his hand out!” The girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, calmly said, “You told him to get his ID sir, his driver’s license,” before praying, “Oh, my god, please don’t tell me he’s dead.”

Castile had, according to Reynolds, told the officer he was carrying a legally-concealed weapon, following precisely the correct procedure so as not to spook the officer. Subsequently, we’ve learned that Yanez pulled Castile over because he looked like a robbery suspect due to his “wide-set nose.” We’ve also learned that Falcon Heights used routine traffic stops as a revenue-generating practice.

Finally, in Dallas, as hundreds of peaceful individuals were finishing their march in solidarity with Castile and Sterling, Micah Xavier Johnson, a veteran of the U.S. Army, armed himself with a powerful rifle and, wearing bulletproof armor, ambushed police officers. He killed five and wounded others, including several civilians, before taking refuge in a parking garage. Police killed him by detonating a bomb attached to a robot. Police haven’t yet released all the details about Johnson’s armament or whether they think he acted alone, but terrifying video shows a man holding a rifle gunning down an officer hiding behind a pillar. This afternoon, a story emerged of yet another attack on police officers and civilians in Tennessee.

The problem is too many guns, spread around a nation programmed by fear and divided by centuries of racial oppression. The threads of history, culture and policy that bring us to this baleful juncture are deeply entwined, and any solutions will require both understanding how oppressive forces intersect while teasing them apart, segment by segment. Here’s just a few of the many pieces, all connected by fear.

Racism, Slavery and Gun Ownership
All three have long been inextricably linked, first in the rights of slave owners to bear arms, then by the taking away of arms from freed African-Americans after the Civil War. In the 1960s the NRA repeated this process by celebrating the disarming of black civilians. African-American men have long been presented to white American culture as dangerous, whether armed or not. Lawrence Vogelman, after the Rodney King trial, wrote about the “Big Black Man Syndrome,” the ways in which our images and language promote the idea that black men are especially scary. We saw a recent manifestation of that language in Darren Wilson’s description of Michael Brown as a “demon.” I suspect then we’ll see another when we find out how Yanez justified his decision to shoot Castile, which he surely will.

In the 1980s the National Rifle Association decided to shift from promoting its cause through wholesome images of hunters and smiling (armed) children to emphasizing the use of firearms to ward of an onslaught of rapists and robbers. They weren’t alone. The Willie Horton ad–and more importantly the GOP decision to hype Horton as a way to attack Dukakis–helped George H. W. Bush become president, a message that other political hopefuls didn’t miss.

The racial aspects of the War on Drugs long promoted the idea that black communities needed to be heavily policed. “Broken Windows” policing, one aspect of the War on Drugs, leads to over-policing, criminalizing people for minor offenses and racial profiling, and it continues to this day.

Police have become increasingly militarized both in attitude and equipment. Fear ratchets up. Gun sales boom.

The War on Drugs was joined by the War on Terror, both presenting endless opportunities for merchants, pro-gun activists and politicians to sell fear. Meanwhile, as chronicled by Radley Balko in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop, police have become increasingly militarized both in attitude and equipment. Fear ratchets up. Gun sales boom.

In Dallas, a military robot killed a heavily armed and armored criminal who was killing lightly armed police officers who were protecting civilians who had been protesting the killing of a man carrying a legal firearm. This chain of events, the guns and weapons getting ever more martial, feels like the culmination of something awful. What’s next?

This little mini-history is to show just some of the entanglements of racism, the proliferation of guns, and the intensification of state power in marginalized communities. These aren’t new problems, but they are newly visible, aided by the power of ubiquitous video. Video brings accountability, but it also makes us more afraid.

Two Steps We Can Take to Dethrone Fear
First, police have to lead. We give police officers extraordinary powers and ask them to take extraordinary risks. One power is to treat perceived threats as if they were actual threats, and they are only held accountable if they were not “objectively reasonable” when dealing with the perceived threat. If police want to keep objective reasonableness as the standard for assessing culpability, law enforcement must teach officers to be less afraid.

Second, we have to stop waiting for the gun lobby to come around. I’ve been struck by the way that Twitter is full of people demanding that the NRA condemn the killing of Castile. Yes, the NRA has a hypocritical double standard when it comes to armed black civilians, but we’re not going to fight fear by enlisting their aid. Indeed, the NRA recently tweeted out cautious concern about Minnesota, but its Twitter feed remains packed with news items about people who used weapons to defend themselves. Be afraid, they tell us. Get yourself a gun.

Justice for the victims involves holding the individuals responsible for violence accountable, making it harder for violent individuals to obtain powerful weapons, and rejecting the forces that profit from fear. It’s going to be hard work, but it’s necessary if we want to break this endless cycle.


David M. Perry is a journalist as well as history professor at Dominican University. Find his work at How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter.

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