It's Not Hyperbole: This Week's Police Violence and Political Mayhem Show a Fragile and Flailing America

When is it accurate to say that America is becoming unhinged?

When do we, as individuals and community members and citizens, say a line has been crossed where the forces or laws or societal constraints or morality that is supposed to contain human nature’s worst instincts, is woefully failing?

Perhaps the past year of presidential campaigning dominated by Donald Trump’s bullying, racism, sexism, and vigilantism hasn’t been enough of a warning sign. Perhaps the ongoing mass slaughter of innocent bystanders by people who had psychotic breaks and military-grade assault rifles—and the refusal by Republicans to control guns—hasn’t been enough either.

And in the past three days, there have been two murders of African American men by police, in which the victims’ skin color more than any other observable factor somehow triggered insecure police officers to shoot to kill; and a sniper attack targeting cops in Dallas that killed five police officers, with the shooter, telling police before they killed him, that he was targeting white cops.

Everywhere you look, you see a mix of predictable and regrettable reactions. President Obama, speaking about the murder by police before the Dallas sniper attack, said it is fact that racism in law enforcement targets blacks and that should upset all Americans, just as it is a fact that cops have a very hard job to do and should be respected. That balancing act was quickly attacked by Republicans, including some who blamed the Dallas sniper assault on Obama’s words. That isn’t just absurd on many levels, it shows, yet again, how the GOP intentionally ignores the deep history of racial oppression in America.

As said in its Friday morning newsletter, “It was bound to happen. It was a ticking time bomb. Every time Barack Obama speaks on race, things get worse. When Trayvon Martin attacked a man and was killed in the process, Obama sided with Martin. When Michael Brown robbed a store, got high on drugs, attacked a cop, and was killed, Obama sided with Brown. On Thursday, Obama gave yet another speech on ‘racial disparity,’ and now five Dallas police officers are dead. Coincidence?”

Assertions like that, which are as illogical as they are inflammatory, have become the norm in Donald Trump’s America. But the truth about police violence against African Americans is not new. It’s as old as the United States itself, as historians who have studied slavery on this continent will tell us. The fear of black men with guns in the American psyche goes back to slave-owning president Thomas Jefferson, who, a few years after a slave rebellion in Haiti overthrew the French in the 1790s, convinced Congress to ban the importation of slaves in 1807. The professed fear was black men with guns would seek revenge on wealthy, white plantation owners. (What wasn’t said as loudly was Jefferson’s home state of Virginia was America’s slave-breeding epicenter, while its competition in South Carolina was where the international slave trade was based.) This primal fear is centuries in the making.

That history, not taught in school, shows that the fear of blacks is deeply embedded in America’s DNA. It explains why some people who wear the police uniform should never be cops, because they’re fundamentally afraid of the people they’re supposed to protect. It explains why some people, like the Dallas sniper, also snapped, as he told the police negotiators he was provoked by the cop killings of innocent black men in Minnesota and Louisiana that were recorded and went viral on social media.

But where does this angst-filled moment riven by unnecessary violence and death leave us? What does it say about the way people are living in America in 2016? Before the Dallas attack late Thursday, people who work with my partner—social workers who are black women—were so shaken they could not work at their desks. They talked about being racially profiled for years by cops in the San Francisco Bay Area, about being repeatedly trailed by cops because they drove nice cars.

One would like to think that the novelty of posting videos of the violence on social media would have a cathartic effect and prompt a wider public to come to their senses. Such as heeding the Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. Or listening to those whose lives have been shattered by mass shootings, in which the two common denominators are easy access to military-style automatic rifles and personal histories of mental instability.

But that’s a naive hope in today’s America. Before all the noise in the press this week (recall the primetime smearing of Hillary Clinton by FBI director James Comey and the ensuing GOP rage that he wouldn't indict her), there was a truly insightful feature article about the mental illnesses gripping the nation as exemplified by Trump and what he brings out in people, both his supporters and his most aggressive critics.

One of America’s best writers, George Saunders, in the most recent New Yorker, followed Trump in the primary from coast to coast and tried to dissect America’s angry and unsettled pulse.

“From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other. One mind says, Be suspicious of it, dominate it, deport it, exploit it, enslave it, kill it as needed. The other mind denies that there can be any such thing as the Other, in the face of the claim that all are created equal.

“The first mind has always held violence nearby, to use as needed, and that violence has infused everything we do—our entertainments, our sex, our schools, our ads, our jokes, our view of the earth itself, somehow even our food. It sends our young people abroad in heavy armor, fills public spaces with gunshots, drives people quietly insane in their homes.

“And here it comes again, that brittle frontier spirit, that lone lean guy in our heads, with a gun and a fear of encroachment. But he’s picked up a few tricks along the way, has learned to come at us in a form we know and have forgotten to be suspicious of, from TV: famous, likably cranky, a fan of winning by any means necessary, exploiting our recent dullness and our aversion to calling stupidity stupidity, lest we seem too precious.”

Saunders doesn’t conclude that America is already great, or can be greater still. He thinks the country might be irreconcilably fractured and that Americans, more than anything, are fragile and traumatized, and American democracy, or whatever you want to call it, could fail within our lifetimes.

That’s not first time I’ve heard that kind of observation, but it is very haunting as people across the country are talking to friends and family and trying to make sense of what is going on. I’m reminded of what a now-dead Dutch relative told me about 1930s Holland where he was a famous Jewish boxer. He fought in Germany dozens of times, even as he saw freedoms, civil liberties, dignity and property systematically taken from ordinary Jews. Nobody ever thought things would get so bad, he said, somehow believing that Germany was incapable of crossing the lines it eventually did.

Americans across the political spectrum today are quick to say things are going downhill and getting worse. For some Americans, however, things have been pretty bad for centuries—and only now are people with a different skin color waking to that fact. After three days of terrible violence this week, there’s little clarity on where things go from here, although some prescient writers have said the country is immersed in a decades-long phase marked by societal crisis and cultural awakening.

Amid this week’s bloody news, perhaps the best we can do is acknowledge that the country is traumatized and in turmoil, and the pages of history are turning, with and without our participation. Whether the forces and champions of chaos and fear can be reeled in remains to be seen. That may depend on saying no, in ways large and small, to the senselessness around us.


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