Back in the 1990s, a black man by the name of Rodney King who had been brutally beaten by police appealed for calm after his attackers were acquitted. As riots broke out in Los Angeles, King called out “why can’t we all get along?” It is still a valid question.
I have been thinking a lot about the events that have shaken our country over the past week and my thoughts today will meander between reactions to those events and memories of people and events that shaped my life that impact how I see what is happening today. I think that it important to realize that our past experience and the attitudes that we were brought up with shape how we view current events.
First there were men doing nothing violent, no resisting police requests, being gunned down by police, an event that has become all too common. Then there were the five police officers in Dallas protecting a Black Lives Matter March being ambushed and assassinated by an African American former soldier who stated his contempt for the BLM movement even as he claimed he wanted to kill whites, especially police officers. Then there have been the protests against the killings which have become a fixture in some cities that have been plagued by the brutality of some rogue police officers, as well as the very real and uncomfortable fact that police often handle situations involving white men, even armed white men acting in threatening manners, with far more restraint than they do black men. There is such a thing as White privilege, whether most of us want to admit it or not, and it has existed for the entire history of our country, and even the great victories of the Civil Rights movement never completely riddled us of it.
I was a kid during the great protests of the Civil Rights movement. I remember watching the evening news and seeing police brutally beat peaceful and unarmed protestors senselessly in living black and white since we didn’t get a color television until about 1972. But those images have remained burned into my memory. I went to a desegregated high school which was that way due to court-ordered desegregation which involved bussing kids across town. A lot of parents objected to it, but interestingly enough, most of the kids who attended junior high school together didn’t try to avoid it, we wanted to continue school with the kids that we knew, and to meet new friends. It was an adventure, but initially there were fear of the unknown for all of us. No one knew how this experiment would work. But for our school, Edison High School in Stockton California, it was a defining moment in time; a magical time, where a mixed race student body made up of about a quarter each of Asians, African Americans,Whites,and Mexicans bonded in a remarkable manner, and today some forty years later, many of us remain close, we are the Soul Vikes to this day. That bonding for me has extended to the men and women who went there before and after me.
Since then I have lived in many parts of the country, and sadly the experience that I had in high school seems like the exception rather than the rule. Many of the cities and towns that we have lived in have stark racial divides. Thankfully, we have been fortunate during my career in the Navy, we have lived in middle class, mixed race neighborhoods, even today, and we not only feel safe, but we know our neighbors, and we look out for each other.
In my thirty-five years in the military I have served alongside men and women of every race, ethnicity, religion, and social class that found in our country. These are my brothers and sisters.
That being said, Judy and I have been the victims of violent crime. In 1979 while out with her parents were were held up at gunpoint by two black men. I had a pistol pointed at my head and Judy had her glasses ripped off her face and ground into the parking lot when the robbers fled. But that one incident has not made us fearful of African Americans, even young African American men, and we find that walls can be broken down by simple kindness and respect.
When I was in the reserves I worked for a social service agency in the slums and barrios of San Antonio, a homeless shelter in Arlington, Texas, and in the trauma and surgery department of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where some of the police officers shot last week were taken. I have seen the effects of poverty and seen the effects of violence, and I have stood by the grieving families and friends of African American men, women, and children who died senseless deaths at the hand of violent people. I have also seen the community activists, teachers, medical personnel, pastors, and dare I say police, who work against huge odds in those neighborhoods who do all they can to promote a culture of life, respect, and dare I say, hope. So when I see and hear people of great privilege like former New York Mayor Rudi Guilinani did this weekend, I can only shake my head in disgust. Likewise I am disgusted by media coverage, and the often incredibly ignorant and hate-filled posts that I see on social media and blogs, from people who support violence against the protestors, or the police. Frankly, neither is acceptable.
While I can understand anger of people tired of seeing rogue police officers go unpunished for crimes against people of color in their custody, and I fully support protests, I cannot place all of the blame on police. We live in a heavily armed and increasingly violent society, where the gun rules. As such police officers live in a world where they are in fear of their lives, even in routine traffic stops, and the number of people “packing heat”, legally or not, creates an environment where some officers will either overreact or abuse their authority. But there is another thing to add, with the exception of what occured in Dallas and a few other incidents, most police officers are killed by white men, but those stories seldom make the news.
The thing is that none of this will be solved unless we all start working together as Americans, we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into the belief that nothing can be done. Our problems will not be solved by picking sides or blaming people as there is plenty of that to go around.
Anyway, at some point I will return to this subject, but I am tired of seeing people die. I have stood over the bodies of far too many men and women killed by gun violence, grieving with their families, as well as those wounded or maimed by bullets. Sadly, most of those were in this country, not in Iraq where I also witnessed violent death. I am tired of seeing our flag at half-mast due to the mass killings of our fellow citizens: Black people in church killed by a White-Supremacist, police killed by a ruthless former soldier, children in an elementary school killed by a seriously disturbed young man whose mother allowed him access and training to use assault weapons, a man killing people in a movie theater, and so many other incidents that I have about lost count of them.
These events occur so frequently that they seem to almost blend together, but dare say the word that if these killers did not have access to semi-automatic assault style weapons which are designed for one thing and one thing only, for use in combat, to kill as many people as possible in the most effective manner, that we would have fewer mass killings is tantamount to violating the Constitution. I am not against the right of people to own weapons at all, for self-defense, for hunting and recreation, for sport. But why we don’t curtail the sale of the killing machines designed for war complete with high volume magazines which allow a fusillade of bullets to be fired in any action is beyond me. In fact were it not for the massive numbers of these weapons on the street, legally owned and illegally procured, there would be little need for the militarization of our police forces. I have been trained and qualified on how to use these weapons, and yes, they are fun to shoot, but they have only one purpose, killing lots of people. But I digress, and I’m sure that some people that read this will call me all sorts of names.