Considering how heavily its citizens are armed with pistols, hunting rifles, shotguns, military semi-automatics, crossbows and nunchucks, considering how ethnically diverse and historically divided the place is, and considering that it is home to a third of a billion more or less rootless people, it is surprising Americans don’t kill each other more. The United States is well policed, even if it has been hard to say so lately. In the space of a couple of days in July, black men were shot dead by policemen in two separate incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota. Video flew round the internet. A protest rally called in Texas became the site of a sniper attack by a wild-eyed (but well-trained) black nationalist Iraq War veteran, who killed five policemen and wounded seven others.
The perception that police have an animus against young black men is largely an illusion. It arises from the way a sociological fact has collided with a historical inheritance. Blacks, who make up 13 per cent of the US population, commit around a quarter of its violent crimes, including more than half its murders. They thus have more (and more dramatic) encounters with the police than citizens of other races. At the same time, black Americans’ claims that their ancestors were ill treated by the country’s white majority can neither be gainsaid nor minimised.
Barack Obama and other politicians have lately encouraged blacks to blame their frequent encounters with police on white prejudice, not black criminality. In the almost cataleptically detached speeches he made on his recent visits to Warsaw and Madrid, the President appeared to recognise that attacking the police is more a political strategy than a description of reality. He didn’t speak about the stability of the country. He said: ‘If we paint police officers with a broad brush … then we’re going to lose allies in the reform process.’
At least a dozen police killings of young black men have come to national attention in the past half decade. Few have been open-and-shut cases of brutality. Some are horrific tragedies — like the killing of a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, who was shot in a Cleveland park while wielding a toy gun. Some are unsolvable — like the killing of Trayvon Martin by the neighbourhood guard George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012. Most have involved suspects resisting arrest.
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The 2014 killing of Michael Brown, a 300lb teenager who attacked a patrolman named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, after robbing a convenience store, led to protests nationwide. President Obama stoked them. He sent more senior administration officials to Michael Brown’s funeral than he did to Margaret Thatcher’s. He also sent dozens of civil rights officials to investigate. The red-hot attorney general Eric Holder arrived on the scene to scold local authorities and interfere with grand jury proceedings. Yet Wilson’s explanation — that he had shot Brown in self-defence — held up. The stories of Brown’s friends — who said he put his hands up and shouted ‘Don’t shoot!’ — were embellishments.
In the heyday of newspapers, which was also the heyday of the civil rights movement, incidents like these might have been taken as the tip of a racist iceberg. In the Facebook era they are the whole iceberg. They don’t imply a hidden social crisis. The legal profession has an infrastructure for processing such cases. Benjamin Crump, the lawyer who represented Trayvon Martin’s-family, showed up to offer his services to Michael Brown’s. At first there is generally indignation at what appears a simple murder under colour of law. Then information emerges to complicate the picture — often leaked on websites sympathetic to the police. That was the case with Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died from injuries sustained on a drive to prison. In recent weeks three officers have been tried for Gray’s deaths, and none convicted.
It is early to say what verdicts will emerge from these newest incidents. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Sterling, a street vendor of music CDs, was wrestled to the ground while resisting two policemen, and shot dead. Sterling had a long arrest record and was carrying a gun. There are reports police had been called when he threatened someone with it. There are not one but two phone videos. In neither is it possible to tell exactly what is going on.
In the incident the following day, Lavish ‘Diamond’ Reynolds of St Paul, Minnesota, filmed and narrated the death of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, moments after he had been shot by a policeman at a traffic stop. It is a grisly and heartbreaking video, with Reynolds’s four-year-old daughter saying in the background, ‘It’s OK… I’m with you.’ But the shooting itself was not filmed. Castile was carrying a weapon.
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Fears of winding up in a politically charged investigation have created a ‘Ferguson effect’ that hinders policing. ‘There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime,’ Obama’s FBI director James Comey said last March, ‘the getting out of your car at two in the morning and saying to a group of guys, “Hey, what are you doing here?”’ American cities are less governable. Murder rates are up 9 per cent. In Chicago, where the police force has been embarrassed by the police video of a 2014 killing released last December, the breakdown has been severe. Over Memorial Day weekend in May, residents were being shot at the rate of one an hour. Dallas was widely praised in the wake of this week’s sniper attacks as a ‘success story’ for its newly passive style of policing — complaints of police brutality have fallen by half since 2012. But complaints are not the only measure of a police department’s effectiveness. Murders in Dallas are up by 40 per cent, and in May there were ten people killed in one week.
This month’s attacks on police are not the first in retribution for alleged bias. In the aftermath of the Brown killing, two Ferguson policemen were shot by snipers, and Ismaaiyl Brinsley, an infuriated and unhinged Baltimore native, drove to New York and murdered two policemen there.
The rage of young blacks against the police has taken on dimensions not just of a protest but a rebellion. Fully two thirds (65 per cent) of US blacks support the Black Lives Matter movement, even as it has come to question the very legitimacy of the forces of order. In the days after the Dallas shooting, one of the group’s leaders, Alicia Garza, told the New Yorker, ‘Black Lives Matter is about justice for black people who are being murdered at the hands of the state.’
This view of American society is consistent with what the veteran civil rights leader the Revd Jesse Jackson said about Mike Brown’s killing (‘a state execution’) and with a passage by the polemicist Ta-Nehisi Coates which, last summer, became so popular among Facebook sharers and banner makers that it served as the unofficial Black Lives slogan: ‘In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.’ Just why so much of this destruction should be carried out under the aegis of the country’s first black President, and in black-run cities, is something of a mystery. Dallas has a black police chief. Baton Rouge has a black mayor. Baltimore has a black mayor, a black public prosecutor and a black police chief, and three of the six officers tried in the Freddie Gray case were black.
Coates’s view is that white people have always practiced genocide against black people. If fighting genocide is your cause, almost no tactic is off-limits. The leaders of Black Lives Matter crossed a Rubicon this week when they decided to proceed with protests even after the killings of policemen in Dallas.
There is a reason why political activists usually halt campaigning when violence is done in the name of anything that resembles their cause. Both sides in the Brexit referendum obeyed this imperative in the wake of the killing of Jo Cox. In US cities, such caution has been thrown to the wind. ‘You can’t stop the revolution,’ marchers chanted in Chicago over the weekend. ‘It’s not a setback at all,’ a BLM activist told the New York Times, referring to the Dallas massacre. ‘That’s showing the people of this country that black people are getting to a boiling point.’ For all the talk of racism, there has been a reckless inattention to the possibility that non-black citizens might have a boiling point too.
A week before the Republican convention in Cleveland, street politics is destabilising electoral politics. The events of early July have shifted the presidential campaign seismically. There may be a choice this November between public order and the agenda of Black Lives Matter.
Historically, American voters have preferred the former. An April article in Salon magazine predicted that Black Lives Matter would be the ‘Secret Turnout Ally’ of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. But this only means that Clinton will have a bigger challenge getting on the majority’s side. Her party’s route to the White House requires turning out black voters in high numbers and taking 90 per cent of their votes. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been campaigning for months as if the coming election will be a referendum on whether the country backs the cops or not. He has lined up important police endorsements and laid the predicate for a traditional law-and-order campaign of the sort Richard Nixon won with in 1968. For a variety of reasons, a majority of Americans would be reluctant to see Trump as their president just now. But under the pressure of violence and disorder, such reasons can become harder and harder to recall.