Beware the demagogue taking advantage of a crisis.
With Donald Trump declaring himself "the law and order candidate" in the wake of recent racial tragedy---the killings of two black men by white police officers in Baton Rouge and St. Paul and the massacre in Dallas of five police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest by a black madman out to "kill white people" in revenge---Trump takes a hard line and only one side of a very big problem (also here, here, and here).
And now, with the tragic killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge by a black man, Trump doubles down on his call: "We demand law and order." Law and order is featuring heavily as a theme at the Republican national convention, underway this week. Indeed, the convention's theme of the first day was "Make America Safe Again," echoing Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again."
"Law and order": Harking back to the racial manipulations of Richard Nixon and George Wallace in the 1960s, the call for "law and order" is commonly understood as a racially-coded call for maximum force from the police, forget community relations. Indeed, Trump now enthusiastically embraces Nixon and his nefarious strategy.
Downplaying the mounting evidence of black men dying at the hands of the police, Trump after Dallas demanded unquestioning allegiance to law enforcement:
"It's time for our hostility against our police and against all members of law enforcement to end and end immediately, right now."
To keep the discussion honest and constructive---and to avoid a repeat of 1968: Nixon's racial politics won over "the silent majority" and left America's structural racism intact---it is vital that, rather than be silent, We the Conscientious People put our hand on the tiller of fast-moving events and declare:
"No, we can do both: We can support the police and address police violence."
For this is not an either-or question, it is both-and: We can both support our police, who---in the vast main---render valiant service by putting their lives on the line day and night to protect us. And at the very same time we can address the brutality of those lesser officers, far fewer in number, who too readily take a black life, as we have seen in too many horrific instances filmed by bystanders.
Trump is being joined by other law-and-order hard-liners; together, they are framing the debate in hot rhetoric and targeting Black Lives Matter. A false argument over priorities---blue lives vs. black lives---is shaping up. One police chief called Black Lives Matter protesters "criminals"; another police chief called B.L.M. a "radical hate group." Yet another called B.L.M. "a terrorist group" (this chief has been ousted). Rudy Giuliani, New York's "9/11 mayor" who's evolved into an unprincipled fearmonger, on Face the Nation called B.L.M. "inherently racist." Likewise Trump calls B.L.M. "inherently racist."
But by demonizing a movement, law-and-order hard-liners ignore both the human tragedy of black lives lost, as well as the operational problem of police violence. Conscientious people must prevent the movement's stigmatization. As a B.L.M. leader, DeRay Mckesson, said after the Baton Rouge police killings: "The movement began as a call to end violence. That call remains."
It should be noted Trump's law-and-order call occurs in a period of major decline in crime rates. That bears repeating: We currently enjoy a decline in crime rates. One wonders, then, how Trump's motivation in calling himself the "law and order candidate" is anything other than political or his point anything other than racial. Demonizing a movement is a classic political tactic. (Black Lives Matter came into existence in 2012 in response to the Trayvon Martin murder.)
To be sure, some Black Lives Matter protesters use anti-cop language---and to keep the moral high ground, they should stop it, as President Obama urges. But it is also the case that some police officers have taken black lives in a manner conveying that, indeed, those lives did not matter. Can these points not be conceded, so real debate can take place? (Memo to B.L.M.: Since police reform is your objective, using anti-cop language only forces the police into a defensive crouch, not open to reform.)
It is to be hoped that where a police department can weed out its racist cops, it will (post-Dallas examples here). Good cops suffer deeply the taint that a few bad cops give the department and the entire profession. Especially since the Michael Brown killing two years ago by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri (U.S. Justice Department report here), law enforcement has been under pressure to reform. Under review is the warrior versus guardian mindset; the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommends adopting the guardian mindset.
As it happens, the Dallas P.D, now suffering the grievous loss of five officers, might serve as a model. A practitioner of community policing and de-escalation training, the Dallas P.D. boasts a reduced crime rate and a reduced rate of excessive-force complaints: In the past five years there were 150 to 200 per year, in 2015 just fourteen (14). Its chief, David O. Brown has earned universal kudos for his handling of the massacre and its aftermath. (For an alternate view of Dallas P.D., see here.)
Still, bad cops exist, as the president of the Black Police Officers Association of Greater Dallas acknowledges on the PBS NewsHour. He calls on President Obama and Congress to pass laws that would purge bad cops across the country.
For his part, President Obama urges "mutual respect" on all sides to resolve this most obdurate of American problems, race. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has spoken of "white privilege": Privileged as we are, we might acknowledge that, in any encounter with the police, a white American's first reaction is not likely fear, while a black American's first reaction is.
In passing, this positive note: At the march in Dallas that ended in massacre, before the mayhem started, Black Lives Matter protesters were taking selfies with the Dallas cops who were protecting them---a fleeting image of police-community solidarity. (Hold that picture.) The double irony is that the cops were protecting a march that was protesting police brutality.
And, bearing on law and order: Since Texas law allows guns to be openly carried, guns were openly carried by some Black Lives Matter protesters (and who knows how many guns were concealed), making the job---once the sniper's bullets were flying---of identifying friend from foe exceedingly difficult for the cops. Ohio, site of the Republican convention, also has open-carry laws, which Governor John Kasich declines to revoke---despite the urging of the Cleveland police. People: Should we not rethink these gun laws? (Memo to protesters: Leave the guns at home.)
Finally, conscientious people need to insist on another both-and: Both black lives and blue lives matter. Everybody wants justice.
Public discourse in America has become simplistic and binary: Either you're for X or against it, no nuance allowed. In political campaigns, with the power to govern at stake, this binary tendency becomes sharper, even more so in a time of fear. And fear defines the present moment. Ominously, Trump predicts more protest violence this summer. Prominent black writer Jelani Cobb writes that, taken together, these new calamities---Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas---"have the feel of a national turning point."
Donald Trump, breaking all taboos on race to appeal to beleaguered whites, has weaponized the divisive rhetoric and now claims the mantle of law and order. Conscientious Americans must jam Trump's one-note law-and-order hard line, by insisting we can do both: We can support the police and address police violence.
Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Her early career was in civil rights, which included the post of Equal Opportunity Officer for the City of San Diego.