Chapter 52: The Racial Divide

Published May 31, 2020

The following is reprinted from “The Great Divide: Story of the 2016 US Presidential Race.”

More than 200 pages into this book and I have barely mentioned race. I guess I reflect most of the population, for whom race is very difficult to talk about.

The racial divide in America is as deep and wide as the political divide, and even uglier. Racial animus is more personal. It’s more stark, vile, dangerous and senseless. It’s not based on a difference of ideas, which is senseless enough. It’s based on a difference of skin color. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

There is racism in every walk of life. There are racist accountants, cooks, taxi drivers, insurance adjusters, vacuum cleaner salesmen – you get the picture. Most of these folks will live with their demons and won’t inflict a whole lot of damage on society before they eventually die out in the evolutionary process.

A racist cop is different. Racist cops can do real damage – to their victims, victims’ loved ones, our system of justice, and their fellow officers, most of whom are not racists. I don’t believe there is any more racism in law enforcement than in any other profession. In fact, I’d argue there is probably less. But some jobs require zero tolerance. One racist cop is one too many.

The history of racism and discrimination in this country is still fresh and unresolved. It is too much to ask those who have been discriminated against to not feel paranoid when confronted by law enforcement. As a middle-aged white male I get nervous when I see a cop car in my rearview mirror or get stopped by police. I can only imagine the anxiety black people feel in these situations.

There are probably fewer racist cops today than ever before. Think of all the injustice that took place before everyone had cell phones with video cameras. Some of us got our first glimpse of this in 1991 when a popular new technology – the portable camcorder – captured four L.A. cops beating the crap out of a small-time hood named Rodney King. King was already handcuffed and on the ground. He’d been apprehended after a chase, dragged out of his car and beaten.

Despite the video, the cops were acquitted of all charges by a mostly white jury in mostly white Simi Valley, California. This set off riots that including blacks pulling a white man out of his car and beating him as the cops had done to Rodney King. This was the racial climate in Los Angeles when O.J. Simpson was acquitted by a mostly black jury of murdering two white people despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt – to the cheers of the “black community.”

By July 2016, racial tensions in America hadn’t improved much, despite having an African American president. The increased prevalence of video had brought more ugly incidents to light. Not all were racially motivated. Not all were the cops’ fault. In many it was unclear if race had anything to do with it. In some it could be argued that cops merely used “necessary force.” But some were pretty bad.

One that occurred in my home town of Chicago that received considerable national attention was the execution of a black teenager named Laquan McDonald. He was allegedly trying to break into some vehicles in a truck yard on Chicago’s south side. He had PCP in his system. He was wielding a knife. When police arrived, he ignored demands to drop the knife and instead appeared to be walking away. In police accounts not captured on video, he allegedly lunged at police with the knife. What was captured on video was a white cop shooting McDonald 16 times. The cop was charged with first-degree murder.

Another high-profile case was in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white officer killed a black man named Michael Brown after some minor offense, setting off riots and exposing deep racial divisions in the town. When it was announced the officer would not face charges, more riots ensued.

In Baltimore, several police officers were charged in the death of a black man named Freddie Gray who suffered a broken neck after being buffeted around the back of a police van while cuffed and untethered. This case led to riots directed specifically at Baltimore police, actually affecting cops’ motivation and effectiveness in trying to maintain order.

These incidents fueled the Black Lives Matter movement but hadn’t been a major issue in the 2016 election campaign thus far. One reason was that it was not really a Democrat/Republican issue. It was a Black/White issue. There was debate over limits of police aggression, the difficultly in making split-second life-or-death decisions, culpability of suspects who commit a crime and then defy or resist arrest, and yes, the presence of racism in the nation’s police forces.

On July 5, 2016, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a 37-year-old African American man named Alton Sterling was in his customary spot in front of a convenience store hawking CDs. Someone allegedly called 911 and reported that Sterling had made a threat with a gun. When police arrived, they ordered Sterling to the ground. This was all caught on video. The next thing you see, Sterling is tackled and pinned to the ground by two white cops. Then someone yells, “He’s got a gun,” and within seconds, the officers shoot a number of shots into Sterling’s back and torso. They then appear to remove what could have been a gun from his pocket.

It was chilling because Sterling seemed subdued. There seemed to be no visible cause to shoot him, let alone shoot him multiple times from inches away while he was pinned to the ground. These cops appeared wound too tight for my taste in law enforcement officers. But what do I know? I have never come close to facing the pressures they face each day. But it sure looked like they overreacted.

Did they overreact because the victim was black? Did they kill him because they were racists? How could anyone besides these two cops possibly know? But it elicited outrage and caught the attention of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The next day, a black man named Philando Castile, his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter were pulled over by a white cop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul. Allegedly they were stopped for having a broken taillight.

I must pause here to ask car manufacturers why they don’t include an indicator in all cars telling us when a taillight is out. You tell us when a door is ajar, the trunk is open, a tire is low, the engine is hot, the oil needs changing – why the hell can’t you tell us when a fucking taillight is out? There. I feel better.

But this was serious. It was later reported the officer thought Castile resembled an armed robbery suspect who was on the loose. No one knew for sure what led to the cop shooting and killing Castile. All we knew was what was on the video Castile’s girlfriend took with her cellphone immediately after the shooting.

As her boyfriend lay bleeding to death in the front seat, the girlfriend calmly (under the circumstances) and in measured tones narrated what had just happened. The cop stood outside the car with his gun still drawn, alternately pointing it at the girlfriend and her dying boyfriend. The cop shouted at the girlfriend to keep her hands visible.

Like the cops in Baton Rouge, this cop seemed wound too tight. Maybe it was because he just shot someone. Maybe Castile had reached for a gun as the cop claimed. Castile had a gun. He had a license to carry it. The girlfriend said on the video that Castile told this to the officer before the cop shot him as he reached for his ID. The cop is heard on the video yelling, “I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his hands up!”

Maybe it’s not racism. Maybe they need to do a better job screening cops for temperament or providing better training. But like Baton Rouge, this looked bad.

“Nobody should be shot and killed in Minnesota for a taillight being out of function,” said Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. “Would this have happened if those passengers would have been white? I don’t think it would have.”

The next day, there were protests across the country over the Louisiana and Minnesota shootings. One was in Dallas, where hundreds of people gathered near the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza, just blocks from where JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

At 8:45 p.m., shots rang out. Unbeknownst at the time, they were being directed at white Dallas police officers. Five were killed. Seven others were wounded. The killer had good aim. Only two non-cops were injured.

Eerily similar to the JFK assassination, the 25-year-old killer – an African American Army veteran – was perched in the upper floors of a building overlooking the street. Once police identified his location, they exchanged gunfire. The killer was wearing a bullet-proof vest and was further protected by a brick wall that kept police from reaching him without exposing themselves. They ultimately deployed a small, remote-controlled robot to deliver an explosive device near the killer’s location and detonated it, killing him instantly.

The killer used an AR-15 assault rifle in the attack. During negotiations, he allegedly said he was targeting white cops because of the Louisiana and Minnesota incidents. Police found an arsenal of weapons in his home. He reportedly wanted to do more damage than he did. The five officers killed were the most in a single incident in the country since 9/11.

If nothing else, the post-Independence Day violence took people’s minds off Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, Donald Trump’s fragile support heading into the GOP convention, the candidates’ prospective VP choices and other mundane issues.

The bigger question was how Republicans would blame Obama. One conservative talk show host grouped the president in with Black Lives Matter and blamed them for the violence in Dallas. “This is now war,” he tweeted. “Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”

Racism aside, we live in a violent society. The United States is the most violent country there is. Cops have an incredibly hard job. Their tendency to use deadly force perhaps more than they should is a result of the challenges they face as much as it is being irresponsible or racist. Most cops, black and white, are colorblind when it comes to protecting the public. Most do try to de-escalate situations rather than escalate them. Police are not infallible but they aren’t all racists either. The propensity to blame is what divides us. It causes us to turn on each other. It foments hate. Our politics encourage this.

“What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Those words were spoken by Robert Kennedy in April 1968 the night civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Two months later, RFK would be assassinated.

The world was nuts, the world is nuts. Some things just don’t change.