Dallas, Texas: Death and distrust return to the streets that once changed America forever

Dallas, Texas: Death and distrust return to the streets that once changed America forever

A political assassination over a half-century ago and the fatal gunning down of five Dallas police officers force J. BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate the horror of these moments.

In the first class after the school lunch period, in first year algebra as we wrestled with the mysteries of the quadratic formula (everyone alive then still remembers where they were when they heard), the school intercom system suddenly came alive with a terse announcement that school would, without warning, now end early and everyone would immediately go home because of a tragedy occurring in Dallas, Texas. There had been a terrible shooting there and it was best if every student was able to be with his or her respective parents at a time like this.

And so we filed out of Mrs Kantor’s maths class, went down the steps to the front doors of the school, and then joined millions of other students across America who similarly filled up school buses, took subways or simply walked home. Each of us were quiet and fearful as we returned to our homes to stare bleakly at the television as the death of a president was announced, his killer was caught, that killer was shot inside the Dallas police headquarters, and the cruel funeral took place on a freezing late autumn day. (If one happened to live in the Washington area, as I did then, we went downtown to wander in a kind of stunned silence with the vast but quiet crowd that first evening.) The date, of course, was 22 November 1963.

For years afterwards, the very name of Dallas became a kind of shorthand for a city whose entire population had chosen hating as a way of existence, rather than a place that tried to solve its problems and where its residents learnt how to get along. Among other things, besides being a place where a president could be killed by a man with a rifle sitting calmly next to a window of a book storage facility in the city’s downtown, Dallas was marked as a hotbed for the John Birch Society, that far-right-wing network that saw communists or worse subverting every government department, every university, and every newspaper – and that its citizens ought to do something about that.

Describing the Dallas of 30 years ago and a generation after the assassination, Lawrence Wright, in his essay in Texas Monthly magazine, recalled his own youth in that city. It is worth quoting from that article at some length when he wrote that he and his circle,

“…. Dallas was the murder capital of Texas, which led the United States in homicides. We were reminded that Dallas killed more people some years than all of England did – a statistic with little effect, for wasn’t England a sound-asleep society, and weren’t we exploding with new force, building a new world, making millions by the minute, and did you expect a new world to be born without death and broken hearts?….

Dallas was a city of believers, a city of eight hundred churches, among them the largest Methodist, the largest Baptist, and one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the world. In the face of so much belief, honest doubt quickly hid itself; sceptics and heretics were one and the same. In 1960, when Kennedy was contending for the Democratic presidential nomination, Reverend WA Criswell of the First Baptist Church in Dallas declared in a sermon that ‘the election of a Catholic as president would mean the end of religious freedom in America.’ One of Criswell’s 18,500 parishioners was [right wing] billionaire HL Hunt, and he took the trouble to have 200,000 copies of Criswell’s sermon mailed to Protestant ministers all over the country. Criswell later told Ronnie Dugger and Willie Morris of the Texas Observer that in his opinion Catholics should be barred from holding any public office….

While everyone was religious, some were super-religious, and they thought of themselves as a spiritual vanguard. They were contemptuous of the rest of us – we might as well have been agents of the Devil. It was the same with politics. The political scale in Dallas began with Eisenhower conservatism and ran well past fascism to a kind of conservative nihilism. Earle Cabell was a far-right Democrat, present at the founding though not a member of the Dallas chapter of the John Birch Society, and yet he was routinely described by the farther right as ‘the socialist mayor of Dallas’….

No, it was not just Dallas, but my home town was already gaining the reputation of being the capital of this new world. The only elected Republican of any consequence in Texas was Dallas congressman Bruce Alger, a handsome fanatic with wavy hair and a heavy chin, who was ridiculed in his own party as a hopeless extremist…. In all of his contests Alger was carried along by a formidable cadre of angry right-wing women. His relation to those women was a matter of legend and speculation in the city. Alger was their prince; it didn’t seem to matter to them that in the 10 years he represented Dallas there was never an important piece of legislation passed with his name on it or that the prevailing leadership in Washington was so hostile to his presence in Congress that Fort Worth [a short ride away from Dallas] was growing fat off of the pork-barrel projects that might have gone to Dallas.

Four days before the general election [of 1960] Lyndon Johnson came to town. We hated Johnson there. The rest of the country might have viewed Kennedy’s running mate as a hard-shell Southern conservative, an instinctive racist, a drawling, backslapping political whore with no guiding lights other than the oil-depletion allowance, but in Dallas he was called a closet socialist, a leftover New Dealer, a bleeding heart in domestic matters, and a weak sister when it came to standing up to communist aggression. Was there ever a man in political life with such a divided public image?….

During his presidency the atmosphere in Dallas approached hysteria. ‘The historical conservatism of the city,’ wrote Dallas’s most prominent merchant, Stanley Marcus, ‘had been fanned to a raging fire by the combination of a number of laments: the far right daily radio Facts Forum programme by Dan Smoot sponsored by the ultraconservative wealthiest man in town, HL Hunt; the John Birch Society; the oil industry’s hysterical concern for the preservation of what they considered a biblical guarantee of their depletion allowance; the National Indignation League founded by a local garage man, Frank McGeehee, in protest of the air force’s training of some Yugoslavian pilots at a nearby air base; the consistently one-sided attacks on the administration by the Dallas Morning News and the semi-acquiescent editorial policy of the Times Herald, which had previously been a middle-of-the-road, fair newspaper. For the lack of courageous firemen in the business and intellectual segments of the community, the fire raged on.’

Once again – it wasn’t just Dallas. But we who lived there had the feeling that we were in the middle of a political caldera, a grumbling, reawakening fascist urge that was too hot to contain itself. I wonder what might have happened in Dallas if Kennedy hadn’t died there. The most conspicuous and despised symbol of fuzzy intellectualism was Adlai Stevenson, a former Democratic presidential candidate and the current American ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson stood hand in hand with the Kennedy boys, Bobby and Jack, and with Earl Warren [the liberal chief justice of the Supreme Court] as the most hated men in Dallas – with the difference that while the people who hated Warren and the Kennedys usually professed to admire the institutions those men represented, they simply couldn’t tolerate the UN. It stood for one-worldism, which was nothing more than communism; it stood for talk, not action. Nearly every car in the city with an ‘Impeach Earl Warren’ bumper sticker boasted its companion ‘Get US out of the UN.’”

After Kennedy’s assassination, after the pre-election picketing and harassment of then-Senator Lyndon Johnson (and his wife) as Kennedy’s vice presidential running mate three years before the latter’s assassination, after the assaults on UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson when he was in Dallas, the town had achieved a reputation that combined the worst racial excesses of the South and the presumed justice of the West (and its not-so-long-ago frontier violence). In the years that followed after Kennedy’s death, it took Dallas decades to painfully achieve a different reputation as a go-go growth city that was too busy to waste time on this kind of raw hate any more.

In more recent days, the city elected a black mayor, appointed a well-respected black chief of police and other key civic officials, and undertook a major programme of retraining its police force away from its earlier reputation as a bunch of officially appointed cowboy, enforcer-thugs. Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist at The Washington Post (and just by the way an African American) had written on this transformation just last Friday. And here too it is worth quoting from Robinson’s article at length. He wrote:

The slain police officers were protecting a lawful, peaceful demonstration to protest those same deaths. As the crowd, perhaps more than 800 strong, marched through downtown Dallas, there was anger but no real tension. Certainly there was no sense of danger; police were not wearing riot gear or riding in armoured vehicles. Instead, officers chatted and took selfies with the demonstrators. They had no fear of encounter and dialogue.

The great irony is that Dallas is something of a model. Mayor Mike Rawlings (D) was right when he told reporters that Dallas is ‘one of the premier community policing cities in the country.’ Since Police Chief David O Brown took over in 2010, complaints of excessive force by officers have dropped by nearly two-thirds. Police shootings have been halved, from 23 in 2012 to just 11 in 2015 — and only one so far this year, according to Police Department data.

Brown happens to be African-American, but that’s not the most significant thing about him. What’s important is that Brown was quick to understand that the chasm between police officers and young men of colour was real — and that it could be bridged. His officers undergo training in how to de-escalate conflicts rather than heat them up; they learn to speak calmly when approaching suspects instead of immediately barking orders. When there is a police shooting, uniformed presence around the scene is ramped down as soon as possible. The department, unlike many others, keeps track of police shootings and publishes the figures on the city’s website. And Brown keeps looking for new ways to improve relations between police and the community, realising that diversity is not a destination but a shared journey.

The Dallas Police Department is not perfect, of course. But its efforts to improve the way officers interact with citizens stand in contrast to the appalling police work we saw in the cellphone videos recording the deaths that prompted protests around the country. Sterling [in Louisiana] was on the ground in front of a convenience store, restrained by officers and posing no apparent threat, when he was shot to death. Castile [in Minnesota], pulled over in a traffic stop, was apparently reaching for his identification to hand to the officer who shot him.

The video of Castile’s final moments was streamed on the internet by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. In her narration, she says Castile informed the officer that he was licensed to carry a firearm. It is no stretch to imagine that to the officer, this meant Castile was an armed and dangerous black man. Which leads me to a question I shouldn’t have to ask: Does the Second Amendment apply to African-Americans too? Where is the National Rifle Association statement decrying the fact that an American citizen might have been killed for exercising his constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms?

But the solution is not more guns. The solution is to end the undervaluing of lives, both black and blue. Poor, troubled, crime-ridden communities are those that most want and need effective policing. But the paradigm cannot be us versus them. It has to be us with us – a relationship of mutual respect. I hope police officers around the nation see how rapidly and completely the people of Dallas, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, have rallied around their city’s bereaved police department. I hope they understand that compassion for Sterling, Castile and others killed by police in no way mitigates the nation’s profound sorrow for the brave officers killed in Dallas. Such tragedy is beyond colour.”

Of course the problem tormenting America at this time is much more than simply the murderous instincts of one army veteran in the person of Micah Xavier Johnson, the shooter in Dallas. He was a man with unresolved anger issues who had decided, somewhat like that fictional veteran, Travis Bickle, in the film Taxi Driver, who had drawn upon his military training in order to kill five Dallas police officers (including one who had also served in the military in South Asia), presumably in retribution for the deaths of young black men in other towns by police officers in those other places.

But, at the time of their deaths in Dallas, they had been engaged in what was, by all accounts, peaceful, even friendly, crowd control action for a march by “Black Lives Matter” activists in downtown Dallas, protesting those earlier deaths. In a bitter irony, these most recent deaths had taken place just a few blocks from the spot in Dealey Plaza where Kennedy had been shot while in his motorcade, some 53 years ago.

But just as truthfully, the issue is much more than a lethal hypersensitivity on the part of police in many places and their resort to firearms first, and far too often, in the face of confrontations with young black men across the country. Even if the actual level of police killings in America remains lower, in proportion to total population than is the case in South Africa – with 640 from police action on the street and in custody in Africa, versus around a thousand in the US on average – that latter total should still be grounds to horrify us. This is especially true since analysts note that in less than a month’s worth of time in 2015 there were more killings by police in America than in the entirety of England and Wales for nearly a quarter of a century.

The problem, of course, is also layered with the poisonous residue of a racially charged economic inequality in far too many places in America, especially if that can help in some way to fuel the sudden, unrestrained anger of a man like Johnson. Folded into this crisis as well must be the extraordinary number of firearms that continue to be available in America, even now, after all those mass killings of the previous few years, to pretty much anybody with the cash to buy such weapons, regardless of their personal past, their current mental state, or their unspeakable ambitions.

These events have provoked President Obama to comment on the killings for the fourth time since he embarked on a European trip for a Nato summit in Warsaw and a stopover in Spain. On Sunday, he urged greater tolerance, respect and understanding from police officers towards the people they take an oath to protect, as well as from those individuals who believe police continue to be too heavy handed and intolerant, particularly towards people of colour. As he said in answer to a reporter’s question “I’d like all sides to listen to each other.” Obama added that violence against police by anyone concerned about fairness in the criminal justice system does “a disservice to the cause”. And he went on to insist the vast majority of American police officers – in the thousands of different state, county and local police forces across the nation – are doing a good job, and that any rhetoric that refuses to acknowledge that will do little to rally allies to support efforts to change a system that remains broadly acknowledged as biased against minorities. “Maintaining a truthful and serious and respectful tone is going to help mobilise American society to bring about real change,” Obama said.

In his delicate tightrope walk of an effort to reach out to all sides, he had added, “I would hope that police organisations are also respectful of the frustrations that people in these communities feel and not just dismiss these protests and these complaints as political correctness…. It is in the interest of police officers that their communities trust them.”

However, it will take more than this kind of soothing balm to calm tempers already on the boil in so many parts of the country. And these events – as well as the issues of greater gun control and stronger measures to provide economic help to the poorest parts of American society – now seem almost certain to take greater and greater space in what is an already angry, ill-tempered presidential and general election campaign in the US. DM

Photo: Federal and State officials investigate the crime scene where Micah Johnson gunned down twelve police officers, in Dallas, Texas, USA, 08 July 2016. On 07 July 2016, military veteran Micah Johnson open fire during a peaceful protest held in response the killing of two black men by police in Minnesota and Louisiana; Johnson killed five police officers and injured seven. EPA/RALPH LAUER CORBIS


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