Death Breeds Death in July of 2016

Guns at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, Photo by Amy Cools May 2014I’m sitting here tonight with a heart that’s sinking lower and lower. Two young men needlessly died this week, and it appears that one at least died with no real provocation at all. And tonight, four police officers (at least) were murdered just a little while ago, and many others wounded, at a protest held for those two young men.

On Tuesday, July 5th, Alton Sterling was wrestled to the ground by two police officers in response to a report that he was brandishing a gun in front of a convenience store where he often hung out selling CDs and videos. As the two officers pinned him down, still struggling a bit, one shouted something about a gun, then shot Alton many times in the chest. Alton died. The next day, his teenage son sobbed his heart out on TV.

On Wednesday, July 6th, Philando Castile had just gotten a birthday haircut and gone grocery shopping with his girlfriend and her daughter, when he was pulled over for a broken taillight. According to his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, the officer ordered Philando to produce his license. Between Philando and Diamond, they told the officer that Philando carried a gun but had a permit to do so. As Philando reached for his back pocket, the officer shot him several times and he died. Diamond’s four year old daughter watched it all from the back seat.

Then just a little while ago, on this Thursday evening of July 7th, 2016, two snipers fired at police officers providing security at a protest in downtown Dallas, Texas. Four officers died, eleven officers were injured, and one civilian woman was wounded while shielding her children from the gunfire. And at the time I finish this piece, the standoff with at least one sniper continues.

What a hard evening this is, after such a hard week. What suffering and ugliness. So many shot and killed, these after so many others just this year in this country. I hate guns, personally. I never like holding one. I did try some informal target shooting with family a few years ago, and found I was a decent shot. But the experience did nothing for me emotionally after the initial fun of winning a little contest, and I was glad to have that gun leave my hands. Holding power over life and death like that makes me unhappy.

And I never identified with gun culture, though I’m familiar with it, mostly through some extended family. If the gun culture people are right, all of these people should be alive right now: everyone would be deterred from using their guns knowing that the others are also packing. Or, good guys with guns would have stopped bad guys with guns. Yet here are all these dead people, none of them ‘bad’ as far as we know. They were all some mixture of good and bad like the rest of us, surely, whatever we take those terms to mean. The shooters were not stopped by anyone, good or bad, and the first two young were shot because they had guns, and probably also because they were black. Double whammy, as the Black Panthers realized: for all the hue and cry over First Amendment rights, the moment that black people exercise them, the image of the armed patriot breaks down. Perhaps Alton showed some poor judgment here and there in the events that led up to his death. But as far as we can tell right now, he was not particularly more ‘bad’ than most people I know, at least, than most people, myself included, are and have been at times. Perhaps he did brandish a gun to make a man pestering him for money go away. Whatever. Open carry people do the same, flaunting their guns to deter others from messing with them. Most don’t get shot and killed for that. And every one of us, I think would instinctively struggle if someone tackled us to the ground, especially if we didn’t know why. Philando, apparently, did everything right, except obey the officer’s conflicting instructions in the right order. A split-second decision that any of us could make. And all of those officers killed and wounded in Dallas: we have no evidence that any of them did anything wrong, and we do know they perform an often thankless job doing the hard work dealing with our social dysfunction that most of us aren’t willing to do.

Here’s the common thread in all these killings: every person who fired shots thought that would solve a problem. All they did was create heartbreak and set us even more against one another. Anger, fear, vengeance, and self-righteousness will run amok. Perhaps we’ll listen to each other this time around, unlike the hundreds of times we’ve done nothing after mass shootings and police killings (by and of, though mostly by).

I don’t know what else to say. What a heartbreaking waste and morass of suffering. Like all of you, I’ll wrestle with all of this for a long time to come, especially as more details come out about these shootings. At this moment, I hear the helicopters whirl over the protesters in downtown Oakland from my apartment in neighboring Chinatown, as this city of protest and activism takes to the streets and blocks the freeway. I worry more violence may erupt. And I feel pretty sure of one thing: I can’t imagine ever wanting to carry a gun.

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Sources and inspiration:

4 Police Officers Dead After Shooting in Downtown Dallas: 3 Dallas officers, 1 DART officer confirmed killed in sniper fire following protest, police officials say. By NBC 5 Staff, Thu July 7, 2016. NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth.

Alton Sterling shooting: Homeless man made 911 call, source says. By Joshua Berlinger, Nick Valencia and Steve Almasy, 9:21 PM ET, Thu July 7, 2016, CNN.com

McLaughlin, Eliott C. Woman streams aftermath of fatal officer-involved shooting, 11:20 PM ET, Thu July 7, 2016, CNN.com

Minn. governor says race played role in fatal police shooting during traffic stop. 11:30 PM July 7, 2016, by Michael E. Miller, Wesley Lowery and Lindsey Bever. Washingtonpost.com

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