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The Issue is Still Guns

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Both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile told the officer who shot them, “I have a gun.” They may have thought that giving out this information would protect them. Instead, it cost them their lives. Instead of conveying the intended message don’t be alarmed when you see my gun, it immediately became a neon strobe.

And that strobe lit up Castile’s black face.

I watched the video of Diamond Reynolds’s live Facebook stream from her car and then from a police car in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. She talked almost robotically, probably from deep shock, as her boyfriend bled to death on the seat next to her. Her 4-year old daughter called to her from the back seat. The police officer’s gun pointed through the car window and he screamed as if trying to command a pack of wild dogs.

He was screaming at a silently dying black man, a passive black woman and her daughter. Reynolds’s every response to the officer was calm, measured, and contained a respectful “sir.” She must have wondered if that courtesy would save or forfeit her life.

Castile was shot almost immediately after his announcement, in the act of retrieving his wallet from his back pocket. Could the officer have thought that he was going for the gun that he had just announced? Yes. And if Castile had been white? Would the officer still have shot him?

A white Philando Castile would never have been stopped. “The driver looks more like one of our [robbery] suspects, just ‘cause of the wide-set nose,” said the officer to his police radio just before he stopped Castile’s car. Really?

So what killed Philando Castile—was it racial profiling? Yes. Was it the officer’s fear? Yes. Was it Castile’s unfortunate pairing of “I have a gun” with a move to retrieve something from his pocket? Yes. If you no more than glance at it, the cop’s crude profiling sounds valid. A black man was wanted for robbery and look, there’s a black man.

But wait. Keep thinking that and you’ve stepped into the signature early scene of In the Heat of the Night, with Rod Steiger arresting Sidney Poitier for the offense of Being Black. Unfortunately, you’ve also entered a lot of communities in this country—even though it hasn’t been 1967 for a very long time.

It makes me wonder why dozens of white male drivers aren’t stopped and questioned after some white guy robs a jewelry store. Surely the police, seeking the suspect, see these people who look like the suspect driving by?

Depending on which news story you read, Castile had been pulled over for traffic violations some 30-to-50 times since he began driving in 2002. That’s once every four-to-six months, for fourteen years in a row.

I’ve been ticketed maybe a dozen times in forty-eight years of driving—which comes out to once every four years. So Philando Castile was ticketed at twelve to sixteen times my rate. This was in Minnesota, not the Deep South, but you have to wonder if Castile was a bad driver or was simply committing Poitier’s crime of being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When I’m pulled over for a traffic infraction, I never wonder if I will survive the event. But after 14 years of regular stops, Philando Castile finally hit a deadly jackpot: the officer killed him for being threatening. Sorry, I had the impression you were going to kill me.

The problem folds back on itself: you get pulled over more often because you’re black, which increases your exposure to dangerous circumstances. And once you’ve been pulled over, there’s a nervous white police officer standing at your door and look, you’re black. In that cop’s mind, you’re an automatic risk.

In Philando Castile’s case, he announced to the cop that he had a gun and then—in the officer’s mind—reached for it. I must ask again, would a white man who did that be shot immediately? I think no. I think that the white man would get the opportunity to produce his driver’s license instead of a gun. Or at least be told to freeze, and be given that opportunity, before the cop fired.

So this incident started badly, with an innocent man pulled over because he was black, and ended badly when he attempted to defuse tension but inadvertently increased it.

It gets worse. I’m trying to remember when a white cop was convicted of killing an unarmed black man. I can’t. Even pretend-cop George Zimmerman got off, after stalking and killing Trayvon Martin. The cop who killed Tamir Rice in under two seconds was not indicted. I saw the video. Not even indicted? Wow.

Since May, two of the six Baltimore police who were charged in Freddie Gray’s fatal van ride were tried and set free, and assault charges were dropped against a third.

I once tried to tell a black man that I understood prejudice because some people hated my long hair. Now I read about “the talk” that black parents must have with their children. Not about sex-with-condoms. I mean the don’t-get-shot-by-the-police talk.

My white friends, we have NO idea how good we have it.

From the Washington Post: …the National Association of Police Organizations’ executive director, William Johnson, last week accused Obama of being “the Neville Chamberlain” in the “war on cops” that is underway in America.

Mr. Johnson, there is no “war on cops.” There is a spike in the reporting of police killing black men. Because now there is cell phone video to document it. There is a resultant spike in criticism of the police for doing that. Because there is social media, a forum for posting those videos.

The same people who don’t believe that black lives matter want you to believe that there is a war on cops.

Again: there is no “war on cops.” Roofers and garbage collectors die at a higher rate. Many more police were killed on the job during Reagan’s two terms (576), than during Obama’s terms (314). More during Clinton’s two terms (528). More during W’s two terms (405). You can look all of that up.

The issue is still guns.

Black men feel the need to carry a gun for self-defense. Then they feel the need to tell the white cop who pulled them over, to defuse a possible surprise. Then the white cop feels threatened and kills the black man. Take away the guns and no one dies. I hear what you’re saying about that impossibility. But I’m talking as much about the attitude that surrounds guns, as about the guns themselves.

Consider this legendary quote from Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” Nearly every cop movie you’ve ever seen will confirm that. But let’s examine what actually happened in real life, in Dallas.

One bad guy with a gun shot eleven good guys with guns. He killed five of them. And then a force of dozens of good guys with guns—also with cars and cell phones and logistics—couldn’t bring down that one bad guy. They had to send in a robot with a bomb.

It will be disheartening to hear LaPierre eat his words without admitting any error in thinking. But you know that he will. And you know that the NRA and the Congress it owns will slither away again from the only sensible response: limit the possession of war-grade hand weapons.

My personal solution would be to limit their existence. Beat as many guns as possible into plowshares, at least figuratively. And live with the fact that many criminals will still have them. I may not know how to fix the cultural problem that we have now, but I know one thing for certain: what we are doing now is not working.

A second tragedy from the Dallas attack is that the police department was a model for public outreach. Chief David Brown worked for years on his force, culling bad officers and nurturing community outreach. It worked, and the night of the demonstration, officers posed for photos with protestors.

Then the shooting started and those Americans who most need to hear Black Lives Matter’s message forgot all that progress in a flash. If they had ever been disposed to hear it.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Dallas police, former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted (and then quickly took down): “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”

That’s a clever—and ugly—way to get your message to other racists and then deny to everyone else that you really meant it.

This from a Washington Post story: “Four off-duty police officers who were providing security at a Minnesota Lynx home game Saturday walked off the job following pregame comments by some players and team members warming up in shirts with messages supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The president of the Minneapolis Police Federation offered praise for the officers’ decision to quit and suggested that their colleagues may all choose to do the same.”

Many people see the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and put “Only” in front of it. Wrong! Put “too” after it: Black Lives Matter Too. Why say that? Because weekly news stories tell me that too many police believe black lives do not matter.

So yes, damn right it’s about race. But IMO it’s also very much about guns. It’s about guns and the culture that surrounds them. Call it the paramilitary-industrial complex. We’ll be lucky to hear a peep about reining that shit in during the Republican Convention.

I have a tidbit of good news to report. Donald Trump attempted a photo op with the NYPD on the morning after the Dallas massacre.

They turned him down.

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Written by

Steve Schlich writes fiction about software: “easy to use,” “does what you want”—lies like that—for the mortgage money. For his soul, he writes fiction and music. Hobbies include webmaster for www.RodSerling.com. In 2004, he created www.NakedWashington.com, a website chronicling the naughty public art in Washington, D.C. He lives happily with his wife and cats, north of San Francisco, where he’s been a technical writer of in-house software manuals since 1982.

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