BULLETS AND TEARS
I’ve never before seen a man shot at close range as he lies on the ground; I’ve never seen a man shot through a car window and watched him bleed to death as his fiancé somehow keeps calm enough to record everything. I’ve never seen police officers slaughtered by a sniper. Most of us have never seen anything like this before. These weren’t scenes from a Godfather movie, or an episode of Law and Order. This was real. This was a nightmare far away from sleep. This is America in 2016.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile now join a long list of black men shot by cops when they did nothing to warrant it. The five police officers who died (Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith) and the other seven who were wounded, now mark a new chapter in the violence that is shredding this country. Diamond Reynolds will — or should — be remembered for her astounding ability to remain calm and deliberate in the midst of horror, as the man she loved died, riddled with bullets, right beside her.
So what do we do with our rage? With our heartbreak? With the emptiness that yawns before us when we ask, How do we heal these wounds? Black Americans know what the majority of white Americans have been oblivious to — the roots of racism are alive and run deep. They haven’t withered and vanished in the past few hundred years. Just because the “strange fruit” of black men — beaten, mutilated and lynched — no longer dangles from the boughs of trees, just because young black women are not being stripped and sold and raped, doesn’t mean the disease that made all of that possible isn’t still as virulent as ever. Of course, there are white people in this country who have been perfectly aware of enduring racism — those who espouse it and gleefully practice it. They aren’t the majority, but as long as the rest of us remain at all passive, they will be the authors of the history we are composing at this moment. They will define America.
Violence begets violence. It’s a law of nature. The murders of so many young unarmed black men was bound to incite violence on the other side. It doesn’t mean that everyone who is angry is going to turn violent, but it doesn’t take a majority to create a tragedy. It only takes one person, as we saw in Dallas. Until we pull up the disease of racism by its roots, until we say to those who grin and smirk and look at black people as inferior, not deserving of dignity and equality and humanity, ‘You don’t define us. Your illness won’t be tolerated here,’ this divide will widen and the deaths on both sides will escalate. The police officers who were murdered were walking alongside protesters who want the killing of young black men to stop. Those officers were as innocent as the unarmed victims of police who shot for no reason. Again, violence begets violence.
We have a chilling responsibility right now in this country. We have to decide who we are as a nation. Where is our collective heart, and where is our conscience? This is bigger than who becomes the next president. A nation is defined by its people. A nation is defined by how — or if — it has atoned for the dark chapters of its past. As long as we — collectively — assume that our history of enslaving black Americans was a long time ago and has faded over time into oblivion, America will be enslaved. The chains of history wrap around those who don’t look at it clearly and unflinchingly, and it pulls hard on those who don’t make amends for the wounds and the scars that are handed down from one generation to the next.
We are at a crossroads right now in our history as a country. It remains to be seen which road we will choose.