On Tuesday, I watched in horror the video of two white police officers appearing to execute Alton Sterling at point-blank range in Louisiana. On Wednesday, a Facebook Live video showed Philander Castile bleeding to death after being shot by police in Minnesota. I wept while watching it, but that was nothing compared with the pain of his girlfriend and daughter, who were forced to watch his life slip away.
And then, Thursday night — five Dallas police officers gave their lives protecting the peaceful assembly of people protesting their institution. Another seven were wounded. Like most Americans, I want none of it. I don’t want black people killed by police, I don’t want cops shot by snipers, and I don’t want children to be massacred with assault weapons in schools.
It feels obscene to stare at these videos of black Americans being killed by police. It feels obscene to ignore them. It’s also vital to honor the police who were gunned down in Dallas, and yet I worry that retaliation will cost even more black lives. I feel overwhelmed by conflicting emotions — a sense of powerlessness and an urge to somehow stop this wave of violence.
But the stakes are too high to indulge in white guilt. This isn’t about our feelings, it’s about our responsibility. As noted feminist Ijeoma Oluo said, white people have to act today, and we have to act tomorrow. We have to act like our lives depend on it, because black lives actually do.
Given the carnage in Dallas, it’s important to note that the vast majority of police are willing to give their lives to protect the communities they serve. Rather than disparage law enforcement as a profession, our anger should be levied at the political systems that continually erase the wrongdoing of the small minority of police who dishonor their badge. Police operate in the framework we the citizens have built. They act in our name, according to the laws we ask them to enforce.
For example, Alton Sterling’s case will prove hard to prosecute because of a so-called “Police Bill of Rights” in Louisiana. It gives officers 30 days to get their stories straight, with lawyers and with each other, before prosecutors are allowed to ask a single question.
Similarly, prosecutors who fail to hold police officers accountable for these killings should be held accountable themselves. The system held police blameless in the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others. When there are no consequences for police murdering a citizen, it encourages other officers to act with reckless disregard for black lives.
There are actions we can take today to end this cycle of violence. Studies show that body cameras and dashboard cameras drastically improve law enforcement outcomes for everyone, including police. These videos give an objective account of law enforcement actions, and can protect police, as well as hold them accountable in a court of law. I call on our lawmakers to mandate these devices, and to supply them to police departments nationwide. Cameras will not be a panacea. In the case of Sterling, for instance, police body cameras mysteriously went missing.
I also refuse to vote for any elected official that will not make police reform a priority. Republican or Democrat, any elected official that passes legislation making it easier for police to avoid accountability does not deserve to remain in office. I call on other Massachusetts residents to do the same.
Massachusetts is a state unafraid to attempt bold solutions to nationwide problems. We passed strong gun safety laws, which have resulted in one of the lowest gun violence rates in America. Former Republican Governor Mitt Romney’s health care plan was the template for Obamacare, with has given 20 million Americans access to health insurance. We are in a position to provide leadership where others cannot.
Tweeting is not going to solve this. Arguments on Facebook will not solve this. Peaceful engagement with our civil systems in the only way forward. I plan to do my part, and I hope you’ll do yours, too.