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Commentary

It's the cameras that are new, not the police misconduct

Jack Lessenberry

Two days after the killings of five police officers in Dallas, there was an editorial in the Detroit News that began “The last thing we need in this country is a race war.”

Well, just about everybody who is sane would agree with that. But there are a lot of black people who could tell you that a race war has been going on for centuries. 

There’s absolutely nothing new about the unjustified slaughter of black people by the cops.

Here’s a bit of historical trivia: When Coleman Young was first elected mayor of Detroit in 1973, the number of white and black voters were just about equal.

But there was a lot of controversy over a program called STRESS, short for “Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets.”

This involved heavily armed police cruisers, and officers who some said were in the habit of blowing black men away with little or no provocation.

John Nichols, the police chief who started STRESS, was Young’s opponent in that election, and there were just enough white voters who were repelled by STRESS to give Detroit’s first black mayor a narrow victory.

What’s new today is video cameras everywhere, including on police officers and their vehicles, and in the hands and smart phones of bystanders. So we have been seeing a number of cases in which white officers killed black men in what looked like cold-blooded murder, including two in just the past week, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.

Then came the shootings of police officers in Dallas, in what is being called a payback or revenge killing. Now, we are all holding our breaths to see how this plays out in our city streets, in the presidential election, and in the life of this racially-charged country.

I have no easy answers.

But I do have a few suggestions. One is that everyone, especially everyone who identifies as white, read a short book called Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a brilliant black journalist who grew up in a bad neighborhood in Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic.

It was published last summer, and no matter how much you think you know, you will learn more than you did about what it is like to be black in America today, and interact with authority figures, especially the police.

By the way, I said “identifies as white.” Perhaps I should have said, “everyone identified by society as white.” After journalist Charlie LeDuff disclosed with some apparent pride that he may have African-American ancestry, a street-wise black colleague of mine snorted “Yeah. Now just let him try living as a black man.”

The other thing I’d suggest is that we not jump to conclusions about the motives of the shooter. Ironically, America was torn apart in Dallas in a very different way fifty-three years ago, when President Kennedy was assassinated just blocks from where the police officers died last week. Lee Harvey Oswald was about the same age as the Dallas shooter.

Oswald claimed to be a Communist, but in reality was just a miserable misfit who wanted to be famous, and got his wish. There are those who would wish to use these killing as an excuse to tear America apart.

Let’s not give them theirs.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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