Analysis: Texas leaders have lesson to learn from Dallas attacks
As news of Thursday night’s attack on Dallas police poured in over social and traditional media, lots of people ran to their ideological corners, trying to fit the developing tragedy into preexisting ideas about race, police, guns, mental health, politics and culture.
That reaction felt wildly inappropriate — and inadequate.
“We don't feel much support most days,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a news briefing Friday morning. “Let's don't make today most days. We need your support.”
Save the hashtags for later. The attack had the strange effect of putting law enforcement and protesters against police violence on the same side.
What had by all accounts been a peaceful protest, one prompted by questionable police shootings of Black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, ended when snipers began shooting at people in uniform, killing at least five of them and injuring seven more.
Police ran toward the trouble as the crowd ran away from it.
The anger that prompted the protest rapidly gave way to common cause. Dallas police have, by many accounts, done a laudable job of narrowing the divide between them and their community. It’s still a divide, but they’ve made progress. Their city and their state rallied around them with waves of sympathy and support.
The attacks redrew the battle lines, reconfiguring the “us” and “them” into everyone vs. the attackers. Police and public started the night on opposite sides, and ended it together.
Political people need to feed their storylines, and they’ve already started, if gently. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, took this tack on Twitter Friday morning: “We will not tolerate violence against police. We must stand behind our police department and the communities they protect.” And he had a response within ten minutes from state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass: “Let's not tolerate it against anybody. That is best way to honor memory of the fallen. Protect life.”
They’re both right. Neither of them is likely to disagree with what the other said. But in politics, there’s an urge to protect your position, to distinguish what you’re saying from what they’re saying on the other side — to argue.
Sessions and Nevárez are hardly the only pols talking about the attacks and the underlying protests. They’re both being civil while other voices — official ones and unofficial ones — are striking more militant tones.
The police who were being protested in Dallas on Thursday were busy and numerous, talking to the protesters, probably having some tense conversations but also showing up in selfies posted online by the people on the streets of downtown Dallas.
They were disagreeing, agreeably. They still have legitimate and very serious beefs with each other. Thursday night didn’t erase those. The problems they confront are real and deeply emotional matters of life and death. The arguments are charged with anger and pain and a perplexing mix of conflicting ideas.
This is hard, and important. We live in a split society with different rules based on color and culture and with citizens and police circling each other in fear. It’s a defining time that recalls, in many ways, the protests 50 years ago over civil rights and the wars in Southeast Asia.
Most of us run from those issues, back to our pat answers about politics, race, religion, class, culture — whatever floats our individual boats. Our self-selected social media neighborhoods are segregated along those lines. We don’t have to look at anything we don’t want to consider. Empathy is neither enforced nor encouraged.
Thursday night had its good moments, too. We’ll hear stories, gradually, of courage and kindness and love, of people taking care of each other without pausing to look for their differences. We’ll think of all of those people in uniform running into trouble to protect those who were running for their lives. Maybe we’ll come to believe, day to day, that we’re on the same side.
“All I know is that this must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens,” Brown said Friday.
The police have a lot of work to do. Trust doesn’t come easily. They’ll fail unless they have real help from community leaders — in politics, government, business and religion.
In their realms, those leaders must do what the police courageously did on Thursday night in Dallas: Somebody has to run toward the trouble.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor of The Texas Tribune.