A touch of madness is sweeping the land, laying bare bubbling bias and carving societal fissures so deep, caring souls fear never being able to repair the breach. And yet there is also a yearning for commonality that serves to start building bridges.
The first sign of both deep division and hope came after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history when a self-radicalized ISIS sympathizer murdered 49 mostly LGBT, mostly Latinos at a nightclub in Orlando. Americans finally saw LGBT people outside the political context of marriage equality and were shocked to learn that gays still need safe places to be themselves, momentarily escaping the perennial fear of too-often fatal gay-bashings. The massacre in Orlando seemed to crack the impenetrable barrier built by the National Rifle Association, prompting congressional Democrats to crave gun control legislation. But even after a historic sit-in, madness gripped Republicans who sneered at the attempt and Congress left for the 4th of July recess.
Then last Tuesday and Wednesday the country witnessed back-to-back videotaped shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile, 32, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. White people can no longer unsee what blacks have been decrying for decades – the possibility of death at the hands of police for simply “Driving While Black.” The whole world watched as Alton Sterling was shot point blank by police sitting on top of him as he repeatedly asked what he had done wrong. Philando Castile lay bleeding to death beside his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who courageously broadcast the aftermath of the shooting live on Facebook. The police officer’s gun is visibly pointing inside the car as Reynolds repeatedly calls the cop “sir,” asking for help for her writhing boyfriend and worried about her four-year-old daughter, Dae’Anna, in the back seat.
They had been pulled over for a broken taillight. The officer did not render medical assistance, even though Castile was clearly incapacitated and bleeding out. “Would this have happened if those passengers would have been white? I don’t think it would have,” Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said after an outcry demanding police accountability—a maddening cry that comes with each wave of racial bias since unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot and killed by white officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. Wilson, like virtually every other police officer in a fatal shooting of an African American, escaped judicial reckoning.
“There is a constant bombardment of images of brutality against African-Americans, and not just brutality, but state-sponsored brutality,” Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told the New York Times.
That persistent injustice apparently triggered the deadly revenge perpetrated by 25-year-old former army reservist Micah Johnson, who ambushed white police officers guarding a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas Thursday night.
The officers, renowned for their community-based policing efforts, ran towards the hail of bullets from a semi-automatic weapon while pushing demonstrators to safety. Five police officers were killed. Among the seven other officers and two civilians wounded was Jesus Retana, 39, a gay 10-year veteran of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). In 2008, Retana married Andrew Moss in California. The couple has been too afraid to speak to reporters. (A relief fund has been set up for the victims.)
The sniper held police at bay in a parking garage for hours, during which time he told negotiators he wanted to kill as many whites as possible, according to the New York Times. “He said he was upset about the recent police shootings,” Chief Brown said. “The suspect said he was upset at white people. The suspect stated he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”
Johnson was subsequently killed by a bomb-carrying robot. Officials confirmed that Johnson—who was discharged from the Army for sexual harassment while serving in Afghanistan—was a loner and a lone wolf with no ties to terrorist organizations, though he apparently embraced what Reuters calls “militant black nationalism.” After searching his home, detectives found “bomb making materials, ballistic vests, rifles, ammunition, and a personal journal of combat tactics.”
The sniper attack against DART and Dallas police officers was the worst death toll for law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001. The assassination happened just blocks from Dealey Plaza where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman on Nov. 22, 1963.
At a prayer vigil on Friday afternoon—where unity was very visibly on display as a rabbi hugged his friend, an imam—Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings obliquely referred to the late JFK, who pledged a civil rights bill before his murder.
“This is on my generation of leaders,” Rawlings said. “We have led the next generation down a path of rhetoric that has pitted one another against each other.” He encouraged citizens to hold the “relatively few” police officers who abuse their position of power accountable, while supporting the 99 percent who “do their job professionally.” Finally, he said, “We must love one another because if we don’t, this cancer of separatism will kill this body.”
“It is deeper than sadness,” Joli Angel Robinson, manager in the Office of Community Affairs for the Dallas Police Department, told Salon. “We need to deal with some things that have been festering within our society that we have been trying to avoid. Poor race relations are real. That’s not just black and white. That’s not just Hispanic. That’s not just majority and minority. That is a culture of a variety of people from various backgrounds. We have to learn how to get along here on this one planet Earth that we’ve been given. That is how people can help moving forward.”
Texas Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who attended the vigil but wasn’t invited to speak, missed the memo about unity. In an interview with Fox News on Friday, Patrick blamed Black Lives Matter activists for the ambush of the Dallas police officers.
“I do blame people on social media…for their hatred towards police,” Patrick said. “I do blame former Black Lives Matter protests. The one last night was peaceful, but others have not been.” He added that he was “sick and tired” of people protesting police, which he believes puts police lives in danger. “Too many people who aren’t criminals, but have a big mouth, created situations like we had last night,” Patrick said.
Many in the LGBT community remember Patrick’s hateful comments last June after the Orlando massacre of mostly gay Latinos. “Don’t be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”
Alicia Garza, the lesbian co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told Essence: “I think that it’s really difficult, this framing around ‘good cops’ and ‘bad cops.’ Policing as a system is incredibly corrupt, period,” Garza said. “There are people inside of these departments who want to reinstate a level of integrity into those departments and they should be commended. But they cannot do that on their own.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch seemed to sum up the reactions of many: “This has been a week of profound grief and heartbreaking loss,” she said. But the response must not be violence. “The answer must be action: calm, peaceful, collaborative and determined action.”
Lynch added: “We must reject the easy impulses of bitterness and rancor and embrace the difficult work of finding a path forward together. Above all, we must remind ourselves that we are all Americans – and that, as Americans, we share not just a common land, but a common life.”
Lynch said the DOJ stands behind and is deeply grateful to “our brothers and sisters who wear the badge.” She also seemed to rebuke Dan Patrick: “To those who seek to improve our country through peaceful protest and protected speech: I want you to know that your voice is important. Do not be discouraged by those who use your lawful actions as cover for their heinous violence. We will continue to safeguard your constitutional rights and to work with you in the difficult mission of building a better nation and a brighter future.”
Lynch concluded by appealing to the better angels of America to not allow “the events of this week to precipitate a ‘new normal’ in our country,” but to stand together and support and heal each other as “one nation,” “one people.”
However, there may already be a “new normal,” with six out of 10 black men claiming that they have received unfair treatment from police because of their race, according to a 2015 study. Additionally, based on data of U.S. police killings collected by The Guardian, “black males between the ages of 15 and 34 were nine times more likely to be killed by police officers than any other demographic.” The Guardian estimates that in 2015, at least 306 black people were killed by police.
The data does not appear to be broken down by sexual orientation or gender identity.
Meanwhile, for those looking at the Dallas sniper’s catch of weapons, the House seems poised to recess on July 15 without taking any action on gun safety. The House will reconvene on Sept. 6.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre expressed “deep anguish” over the killings of the Dallas police but said nothing about the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. An NRA podcast host, however, did note that the police shooting of Castile “does not look good.” Cam Edwards, host of the “Cam & Co” NRA podcast, pointed out that both Castile and Alton Sterling had guns in their position; Louisiana is an open-carry state; and Castile had a concealed-carry permit for his handgun in Minnesota, which he told the officer.
“What we know does not look good,” Edwards said. “Our right to keep and bear arms is not based on the color of our skin.”
But that’s the outcome, according to an extensive report in The Atlantic. Sterling was outside a store when police came. But the store’s owner, Abdullah Muflahi, who knew Sterling, “said that Sterling was not reaching for the gun, and videos don’t show any evidence that Sterling was reaching for his gun,” which was recovered from his pocket after he was shot and killed.
Raw Story also reported on how the Second Amendment applies differently for white and black gun owners, citing eight incidents where whites pointed guns at police – and didn’t get killed. “When a white guy is seen wandering around in public waving a gun, the police usually try to talk him down; he’s probably just having a bad day. Even if the white guy happens to be pointing his gun directly at an officer, his interaction with the police is unlikely to end in the exchange of gunfire. This is called white privilege,” they write. “Recent history suggests there’s a certain methodology for how police handle nearly identical gun-related incidents: white guys get arrested, while black guys get shot. Outraged? If not, you need to pay attention.”
The African American and LGBT communities both feared and distrusted the LAPD before the LA Riots in 1992, prompted by the exoneration of four police officers caught on tape beating black motorist Rodney King. The post-riot Christopher Commission Report detailed how cops suspected of being gay did not receive back up in dangerous situations and how cops dispatched to gay domestic disputes would message NHI to indicate “No Human Involved.”
However, after LAPD Chief Daryl Gates was forced out, African American Chief Willie Williams instituted community-based policing, reached out to the LGBT community, and awarded openly gay LAPD Officer Lisa Phillips with the Medal of Valor for rescuing her downed partner and a civilian while surrounded by an angry mob during the riots. New Republican Mayor Richard Riordan also appointed the city’s first openly gay police commissioner.
Bearing in mind the progress made—and knowing the work yet to do—it might be helpful to understand that for all the institutional issues with policing, community-based police departments—which include LGBT officers—are suffering through a similar kind of unadulterated pain the LGBT community suffered after the Orlando massacre. Those cops were targeted for killing, like the gay Latinos.
“[T]hese mourning bands are a symbol that cannot express the pain in our hearts. And the pain is not just about personal loss; it’s not just about the loss of another law enforcement officer; it’s not just about the attack on American institutions,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told the graduating class of new officers on Friday. “It is a symbol of a breakdown, of a schism that has occurred within our society, where we have done what societies do when they are in trouble: we have separated, we have broken into tribes…. We must move beyond that. This not about black lives; not about brown lives; not about blue lives. This is about America.”
So what can an ordinary LGBT person do? Join a pro-equality, pro-gun safety group. Say thank you to first responders, just like after 9/11. But most importantly, get empowered by voting for legislators who want to break down barriers, deal squarely with racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia and unite the country.
“Elections matter and voting is important,” says Allison VanKuiken, Equality California’s new transgender program director for community mobilization. “Electing leaders who work towards the interests of the entire community is the best way to build strong communities. And when elections are close, voting matters even more.”
Equality California has developed the Vote for Equality Program, geared towards the greater LGBT population and underrepresented communities within the LGBT community.
“The program will meet people where they are and engage them,” she says. “This means we are canvassing Pride events and other LGBT events, LGBT neighborhoods, LGBT communities of color and various regions across the state where our efforts can make a difference. To date, we’ve conducted 19,000 conversations and moved over 6,000 people to take action by registering or pledging to vote in November.”
The deadline to register is Oct. 24.
Like communities of color, the LGBT community has a great stake in this election, not only to protect and win equality but to heal divisions that are “deeper than sadness.”