Politics

Is America Falling Apart or Finally Waking Up?

Lessons from a week of violence.

People gather in a prayer vigil  following the shooting deaths of five police officers last night during a Black Live Matter march on July 8, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.
People gather in a prayer vigil Friday in Dallas following the shooting deaths of five police officers during a Black Lives Matter march.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A week that began with Americans celebrating their best qualities has ended with the country staring into the eyes of its worst self.

The tragedies arrived in quick succession, and it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the details of each one. Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, was killed Tuesday in a confrontation with police outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. According to an anonymous 911 caller, Sterling was waving a gun (the convenience store owner disputes this). Upon arrival, officers confronted Sterling, used a stun gun, and tackled him to the ground. As they worked to restrain him, they found a gun in his pocket. Moments later, they opened fire. Sterling, who had appeared subdued, was dead.

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In the aftermath, each player performed his role in the standard dramaturgy of these events. The police department placed its officers on administrative leave; the family expressed its heartache and called for justice; political leaders gave condolences and assured a fair investigation; the federal government announced its involvement; Hillary Clinton made a statement.

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But just as we were grasping Sterling’s life and death—just as activists were mobilizing and journalists were analyzing—we were confronted with another incident. Another police killing. In this second video, Philando Castile is bleeding, slumped toward the woman recording the scene, Diamond Reynolds. Her 4-year-old daughter is in the backseat. A police officer is outside the car, aiming his gun at the man he has shot. As Reynolds says in her shockingly calm narration, Castile was her boyfriend. He had told the officer that he was carrying a gun and that he was reaching for his driver’s license and registration. It’s at this point the officer fired several times. “Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him,” Reynolds says. “You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”

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More shocking than the last, this video prompted greater anger and greater outrage. Upon arriving in Warsaw, Poland, for a NATO summit, President Obama gave a statement decrying the killings and emphasizing the extent to which American law enforcement has a problem with racial bias. In cities across the country, protesters demanded justice, with thousands gathering in Washington, New York City, and Dallas.

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It was in Dallas that a peaceful, almost celebratory demonstration—involving religious groups, police officers, and ordinary people—turned into a nightmare, as a sniper (or maybe snipers) took aim at police, killing five officers in a shootout and standoff that lasted into the night. Police eventually killed the suspect—25-year-old Micah X. Johnson—using an explosive delivered by robot. Three others are in custody; their connections to the shooting aren’t known. Thus far, authorities have not found any evidence to tie Johnson, an Army veteran, to the Black Lives Matter movement or any political groups. According to Dallas Police Chief David Brown, Johnson “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”

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The killings of Sterling and Castile are a stark reminder of deep racist inequality and of the degree to which police behave this way—relentlessly scrutinizing black Americans above all others—because that’s what the public wants. And the Dallas shootings provide another example of the terrible gun violence that seems to define modern American life. It was the whole American horror show, compressed into a few days.

There’s no context in which this string of violence wouldn’t have had a heavy impact on our politics. But in this particular year, it feels ominous. Just last month, we mourned the dozens killed in the hateful rampage through a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We’ve seen an upswing in prejudiced and exclusionary rhetoric, and we have a presidential candidate in Donald Trump who condones and encourages it, all for the sake of his accidental campaign for president. Accordingly, the barriers we’ve built to keep racism and violence out of politics are faltering, and the international picture—where once-entrenched arrangements crash against the rocks of anger and bigotry—only adds to our anxiety. Groups and individuals see opportunity in this, and they begin to stoke flames of racial hatred for their own gain. It feels, in a visceral way, as if we’re coming apart.

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But we’re not. This isn’t 1968, when wars, assassinations, and riots brought our society to its knees in a way that’s still hard to fathom. This isn’t 1992, when another case of police brutality sparked one of the worst conflagrations ever to strike an American city.

For as little political movement as we’ve seen on questions of police violence and racial bias, there are signs that the broad public—the white public—is waking up to the problem. Conservative writers like Matt Lewis in the Daily Caller or Leon Wolf in RedState are conceding the pervasiveness of police brutality. Prominent Republicans such as Paul Ryan did the same, praising President Obama’s remarks and hailing peaceful protests. Even Newt Gingrich—who once called Obama a “food stamp president”—agreed. “It’s more dangerous to be black in America,” he said. “You’re substantially more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you.”

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It’s too much to say that there’s unity in American life. Nationally, police officers are killing people as often as they were before Ferguson, Missouri, put the issue on the map. It’s not enough to acknowledge problems of police violence; Americans—and white Americans in particular—have to agree to end it, which means jettisoning views that equate crime with blackness and rethinking the role of police writ large. We are still at a deep impasse on the question of guns and what to do about the violence at the heart of our society. And there is the Trump phenomenon to be reckoned with. It’s still true that his campaign is a vector for racism and anti-Semitism, still true that he has proposed plans that would target racial and religious minorities, still true that he has awoken and validated an ugly nativism across the country.

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But the events of the past week—and perhaps the shared sense that we’re on a brink of some sort—have inspired a basic decorum. Black Lives Matter has fiercely condemned the violence in Dallas, and beyond the right-wing fever swamps, there’s no apparent effort to cast blame on the movement against police brutality. At the risk of indulging the soft bigotry of low expectations, this week has revealed the strength of American society at the same time it has exposed its most fragile parts.

That doesn’t mean we can’t break apart. But it does mean that enough of us, for now, agree that there is still something here worth holding together.

See more of Slate’s coverage of the Dallas shooting.

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