Dallas shootings: America’s violent summer turns bloodier

Tensions around guns, policing and race boil over in attack on law enforcement officers

Washington Correspondent Simon Carswell reports on events in Dallas, where five police officers have been killed and seven more wounded. Video: Reuters/Ismael Dejesus

 

Three days of killings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas ripped open the festering wounds of alleged police aggression and racial profiling, and gun violence that American society – its politicians, its police and its people – have struggled to heal.

The shootings of two black men by police officers this week – Alton Sterling outside a shop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, early on Tuesday and Philando Castile in the largely middle-class suburb of Falcon Heights in St Paul on Wednesday – were captured graphically in phone footage that fanned emotions as quickly as the harrowing images were shared on social media.

Violent turn

The anger appeared to be too much for some when events took another violent turn in Dallas on Thursday night, this time directed at police in apparent retaliation.

At a peaceful protest against the shootings of Sterling and Castile on Thursday night, at least one sniper shot 12 police officers, killing five of them, and wounded two citizens.

Dallas police chief David Brown said that the individual later told police that he carried out the attack because he was upset by Black Lives Matter, the movement that has sprung up in response to the police killings of black men, and by the recent police killings.

“He was upset at white people. The suspect said he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers,” Brown told reporters.

The suspected gunman in the Texas attack was identified as Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old black man and a former US army reservist from Mesquite, Texas, east of Dallas.

This week’s spiral of violence has sent the country into a tailspin and reignited the debate about police tactics toward the African-American community and the easy access to high-power military-type assault weapons that can inflict such carnage by lone gunmen.

Cure the divisions

The events of this week are all too familiar: a country struggling to find answers to cure the divisions between police and black people, and to end the epidemic of gun violence.

Until now, these violent acts, and the response to them, have followed a pattern that has become all too familiar in the US and that has paralysed American society into gross inaction.

The question now is whether this level of violence, not seen against law enforcement since the 9/11 terror attacks, will be enough to break the political deadlock and force change.

If the massacres of 20 children in a Connecticut primary school more than three years ago or 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in Florida a month ago has not brought change, it seems unlikely that the killing of two more young black men at the hands of police officers or the murder of five police officers on the streets of Dallas will break this cycle of violence.

“All I know is that this must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens,” said Brown, who is black.

Unusual position

President Barack Obama was left in the unusual position of having to question the approach of policing towards young black men in response to the killings in Louisiana and Minnesota and just hours later to defend law enforcement officers after the attack in Texas.

His remarks at a Nato summit in Poland reflect the nature of the complex crisis of violence and racial tensions that he has struggled to solve during his seven years in the White House.

“All of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings because they are not isolated incidents. They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system,” said the US president in the early hours of Friday before the Dallas attack.

He provided statistics to argue his case, including the fact that African-Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites, and called for speedier police reforms.

“Change has been too slow and we have to have a greater sense of urgency about this,” he said.

Fewer than 12 hours later, speaking after the killings in Texas, Obama condemned the attack on police who were “doing their jobs, keeping people safe during peaceful protests”.

Republican roadblock

The shootings in Baton Rouge, St Paul and Dallas renewed Democratic efforts in the US congress to push through restrictions limiting access to guns, a drive that was given a new life following the Orlando nightclub massacre last month. That effort hit a Republican roadblock as the party refused to cede any ground, even denying gun purchases to people on the government’s terrorist watch list, fearing that it may encroach on the constitutional right that citizens have to own guns, a right considered sacrosanct by Republicans.

GK Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, speaking on Capitol Hill yesterday morning after the atrocity in Texas, renewed the party’s call for action, saying that if Congress failed to act on gun reform, it would be “a long hot summer”.

The latest atrocity, this time against police officers in Dallas, has shown how tensions have already soared during this summer of violence.

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