Among the terrible truths of this bloodstained summer is that Americans seem to have stopped asking, “How could this happen?”
People of all stripes, around Kansas City as in Ferguson, Mo., and Charleston, S.C., and Dallas, regret to say that they know what it’s about. They’re too familiar with the all-day news cycles dominated by events such as the Thursday night murders of five Dallas law enforcement officers in what had been a peaceful protest over police use of force.
They know that these horrific episodes are not tied to one thing but many: Racism. Cellphones. Political and cultural polarization. Guns. Economic inequality.
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“We are all aware of the violence and ugliness of human behavior,” said Brian Hiortdahl, a pastor at Atonement Lutheran Church in Overland Park. “It’s so in front of us.”
Yes, there are plenty of reasons why this summer looks so ugly.
The changes to our lives these last several years have picked up pace. And now they’ve combined with harsh realities that seem never-changing — racial disparities, among them — to bring conflicts to a head.
For Mike B. Rollen, one driving factor is what he calls “hyperreality.”
A Kansas City videographer who has produced documentaries on the struggles of the central city, Rollen, who is African-American, knows that the root problems have existed for generations. But what’s fairly new is society’s ability to watch, share — and ferociously debate — flashpoints of brutality and mayhem.
Last week’s images gave ammunition to the world view of your choice. Black men hunted down by cops. Police attacked and, now in Dallas, slaughtered.
“In this hyperreality, everyone winds up focused on a particular moment in time,” Rollen said. “I’m not sure I want to live in a world where watching all that stuff is the norm, day after day.”
It’s not that people — from local activists to clergy to working stiffs and academics of all ethnicities — have been desensitized to the horrible. They haven’t watched these days of early July, or the many violent months and years that preceded it, in numbness.
They’re anxious, grieving, angry.
But disbelieving? No.
At least a piece comes from wariness of any establishment — trust that leadership actually leads, that it can promise justice and security.
“There is distrust,” said James Harris, a Republican political consultant in Jefferson City.
Cops, he says, get too little pay and too little moral support for their sacrifices. But they’re authority figures in a country that’s lost faith in its elites.
Police “don’t have the confidence of the public,” Harris said. “Is it the fault of law enforcement, or is it a failing of the political class?”
At the policing level, the tension builds on itself, said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“These events heighten fear and anxieties on both sides,” he said, seeing little evidence of relations improving. “Good partnerships are rarely built on mutual suspicion.”
Law enforcement officers and the public they serve — especially minorities — have always viewed each other through different lenses, he said. Police too often assume that they’re being lied to and that the motorist they’ve pulled over has something to hide. The public sees aggressive tactics, Novak said, and wonders, “How could that not be illegal?”
“And use of force? It’s ugly. Even when it’s lawful, it’s ugly,” Novak said. “It can be lawful but awful.”
In any event, “there’s no longer a presumption that the police officer was right,” said Sister Therese Bangert, a chaplain to the police and fire departments in Kansas City, Kan. “We tend to focus on the negative things. All of the good things that either the suspect or law enforcement is doing gets drowned out by the negative.”
Areas of high poverty and high crime have always felt the brunt of police force. But people outside those communities didn’t have to look at it as they’ve been doing, with increasing regularity, ever since a bystander with a video camera caught Los Angeles police beating Rodney King in 1991.
Now no less a divisive figure than Newt Gingrich, potential running mate to Republican Donald Trump, talks of the particular perils facing African-American men.
“It’s more dangerous to be black in America,” he said in a live chat on Facebook after the Dallas tragedy. “You’re substantially more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you.”
Michael Ojo, 32, has been living through it.
He heeds his parents’ advice: “You’re a big black man. Be careful. You get pulled over, put your hands where they can see them and comply.”
Ojo serves on the board of Bright Futures, the fundraising arm of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. He said he couldn’t bring himself to watch some of last week’s news coverage.
“One of the most frustrating things about this time is we’re looking at everything in a binary way,” he said. “It’s either right or wrong or black or white.”
In a digital age that wires everyone together in a way that paradoxically fractures us into endless niches, the aggrieved can always find someone to echo their gripes.
“Whether it’s social media or the web, it’s easier to have access to public discourse, to lead it, to drive it. … It helps normalize fringe behavior,” said Aaron Deacon, a Kansas Citian who is marinated in social media throughout his career and now heads KC Digital Drive, a nonprofit that promotes technology. “How do you combat rule by the mob? In some ways, that’s kind of where we are.”
In the context of Dallas, Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge, those mobs see different worlds from their opposing corners. Cops on the prowl. Cops under fire.
The Washington Post has counted 509 people shot by U.S. police so far in 2016, matching the pace of 990 shot in all of 2015. The Post’s accounting comes from a variety of sources, a best-effort accounting.
The incidents can be hard to track because police departments across the country record such officer-involved shootings in different ways. That makes it hard to tell if cops are killing more people, or simply if those moments are more often caught on video.
Pro Publica looked at deadly shootings by police of teenage males from 2010 to 2012. It found that 31.17 per million blacks age 15 to 18 were killed by police during the period, while their white counterparts died only at the rate of 1.47 per million.
From a cop’s-eye view, a different danger hovers.
The Dallas massacre brought to 56 the total number of U.S. law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty so far in 2016, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Gunfire was the cause of 26 of those deaths.
At this time last year, the memorial fund had counted 58 officers killed on the job, 18 by gunshots.
The frequency of officer deaths actually has declined over the past decade. From 2005 to 2011, an average of about 160 officers were killed each year. The numbers have been below 130 in each of the years 2012 through 2015.
Murder rates overall have been dropping since the mid-1990s. The explanations are fiercely debated, running from changing demographics to incarceration rates.
But raw images, more than raw data, drive perception.
“So why does it seem as if we’re just consumed with violence this summer?” asks Richard Rhodes, a former Kansas Citian, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of “Why They Kill.”
“We’re seeing an unintended consequence of the availability of small portable cameras. Suddenly it’s in our face.”
When police feel the microscope-like peer of cellphones tracking them everywhere in a second-guessing, quick-take culture, their anxiety builds. When an angry man picks off cops on the streets of Dallas and then a traffic stop in a St. Louis suburb ends with a bullet through an officer’s neck, more worry sets in.
“The reason there’s a target on police officers’ backs is because of groups like Black Lives Matter that make it seem like all police are against blacks. They’re not,” Republican and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said on MSNBC. “They’re the ones saving black lives.”
Yet then come the videos of killings by police.
“The last three or four years, you have to say that some policemen have been assassinating young African-Americans,” said Kansas City Democratic political consultant Steve Glorioso.
After Dallas, he said, the country is just as “horrified by the assassination of those policemen.”
From his leftward view, guns constitute part of the problem. From another perspective, that reaction feels like an assault.
“When they talk about infringing my rights because some other guy committed a crime,” said Kevin Jamison, an attorney from Gladstone and president of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, “I’m offended.”
Tony Bolden, University of Kansas professor of African-American studies, takes the long view about this summer of fear.
“It’s been building up,” he said.
The 2008 election of President Barack Obama, coupled with the nation’s worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, reignited old racial stereotypes that Bolden said had been “more or less out of circulation” for decades.
Poor communities got poorer. Law enforcement in the age of terror got more militarized. Insecurities mounted. And the political left and right were cleaved as rarely before.
In the hours after the Dallas officers were fired upon, a former Republican congressman from Illinois named Joe Walsh went off on Twitter.
“This is now war,” wrote Walsh, now a radio host. “Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
Meanwhile, mega-blogger Matt Drudge headlined an early version of the Dallas story “Black Lives Kill.” Even a fellow conservative, writer David French of National Review, called the Drudge headline “pitiful.”
On a CNN broadcast Friday night, Black Congressional Caucus staffer Angela Rye argued from another extreme.
She told the head of St. Louis’ police union: “There are rogue cops who shoot black people for sport.”
Bolden said such reactions reflect how combatants in resistance movements seize upon tragedies.
“Social movements are never pure spaces,” Bolden said.
“The reality of (Black Lives Matter) is that it’s a multifaceted, multiracial, multiethnic movement and at its core is an ethos of love. It’s an opposition to police policies, not to police themselves. It’s difficult for people to make that distinction through the gaze of cable news.”
Police and minority groups who feel unfairly targeted can learn to work together, said Kansas City activist Rosilyn Temple of the crime-fighting group KC Mothers in Charge.
“Someone has to bridge that gap between police, families and communities. And that’s what we do,” said Temple. Her organization, with the help of police funding and assistance, is led by mothers of young African-Americans lost to violent crime.
KC Mothers in Charge and partnerships such as the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, which local officials launched in 2013, build trust and empathy between neighborhoods and authority, she said.
“But it takes a real effort. It doesn’t come naturally.”
Nor does it prevent a massacre, as Dallas police officials now know. Their department, like Kansas City’s (both run by popular black chiefs), had built a reputation for making strides toward unity with the communities they serve.
And cellphones remain a factor.
A video recorded earlier this year in Gainesville, Fla., showed a cop doing something cool. After a resident called to complain about a multiracial group of youths playing basketball “too loudly,” a responding officer who was white joined them in a pickup game.
That video attracted more than 269,000 page views on YouTube since its January posting.
Then again, versions of a video taken Wednesday of a dying Philando Castile, shot in his stopped car by a Minnesota officer, are fast approaching 3 million views.