Foreign Affairs: Dallas, we have a problem

The number, scale and contexts of public massacres and police-civilian clashes during the Obama presidency underscore his failure to deliver social change.

A MAN holds a sign at police headquarters earlier this week following the multiple police shootings in Dallas, Texas. (photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
A MAN holds a sign at police headquarters earlier this week following the multiple police shootings in Dallas, Texas.
America is bleeding. Fifty-three years and two blocks from where a sniper’s bullet hit John F. Kennedy in the head, another sniper has just shot America in the chest.
The attack last week in which a black gunman murdered five white policemen was neither about insanity nor about religion, as has been the case in multiple mass killings in recent years throughout the US, but about social wrath. When it was over, the drama in Dallas was immediately seen as larger than its Texan setting, looming as a haunted American nation’s nightmare and as its first black president’s failure to affect the scourge he was expected to undo.
Waged from a rooftop by Afghan war veteran Micah Xavier Johnson, the Dallas attack responded to incidents in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, in which white policemen killed two black men.
In Baton Rouge, 37-year-old Alton Sterling, a father of five with a history of violent offenses, was confronted by police in a parking lot following an anonymous complaint that he had threatened someone at gunpoint while selling CDs. While they tackled him to the ground, one officer warned the other that Sterling was about to draw a weapon. Three shots were then heard, and Sterling was mortally wounded.
The victim of the following day’s incident in Minnesota, school-restaurant worker Philando Castile, was driving his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter when he was pulled over by police. Asked to show his license and registration, the 32-yearold Castile reportedly said they were in his wallet and that he had on him a licensed pistol. Under circumstances that are still being investigated, an officer soon shot Castile after telling him to lift his arms.
The two killings were quickly depicted as unjustified and sparked protests that spread far and wide, from Memphis, Tennessee, to Inglewood, California, and from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Washington, DC, where a vigil was held at the African American Civil War Memorial.
In Saint Paul, Minnesota, demonstrators blocked major highways while chanting Castile’s name. Struggling to restore order, 21 officers were injured while other demonstrators gathered outside the shooting officer’s police station. Other demonstrators emerged outside Saint Anthony Village City Hall, to which the station belongs.
About 100 were arrested while Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued a call for calm and called traffic’s disruption on Interstate 94 “an occupation,” dramatic language reserved for particularly tense and unpredictable situations. Protesters emerged day after day, changing locations, featuring assorted speakers and at times singing and chanting, in a clear effort to evoke comparisons to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement’s tactics and sway.
A similar effort was under way in Louisiana by the site of the shooting in Baton Rouge, where the New Black Panther Party held a press conference in which it demanded that the mayor and the shooting policemen resign. There, too, demonstrators returned to the streets day after day, and some 40 were arrested after clashing with riot police.
In Dallas, the setting in which the gunman launched his attack was also an anti-police demonstration, which afforded him the white policemen he was out to target, as he himself told police negotiators shortly before he was killed by a robot.
Scenes of citizens confronting riot police whose head-to-toe shields made them look like Ninja Turtles inspired a nationwide sense of gloom. Race, America’s most veteran, stubborn and potent enemy, was rearing its head again.
The sense of perplexity was particularly sharp in the White House, whose tenant’s arrival in it last decade was widely expected to herald a brave future of tolerance and seal an age of unforgettable strife. Eight years on, both assumptions seem unfounded, and the first to admit this was Barack Obama himself.
“It’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse,” he told 2,000 people who packed Dallas’s Symphony Hall for a memorial service, punctuated by five folded flags on five empty front-row seats.
THIS MONTH’S three incidents are part of a long list of shooting incidents that challenge Obama’s legacy on two planes: race relations and gun control.
America’s gun-control problem reached new heights during the Obama years, which saw across the US 21 massacres resulting in at least three fatalities each.
Geographically, the shootings ranged from an immigration center in Binghamton, New York, where a gunman killed 13 in April 2009, to a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 were murdered and 58 were wounded during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.
The massacres varied also in terms of their contexts. Some involved life crises, like the estranged husband who in October 2011 murdered eight people in the Seal Beach, California, hair salon where his wife worked. Others involved deranged gunmen like the one who murdered 27 in a Newton, Connecticut, elementary school in December 2012, or the student who last October murdered nine colleagues at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon.
Other attacks had ideological targets, like a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where six congregants were murdered in August 2012, or a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, where three were murdered last November, or the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine were murdered 13 months ago.
The Dallas attack falls into this category and thus underscores America’s gun-control problem no less than it lays bare the social chasm from which it emerged.
Foreigners, certainly Israelis, can’t understand the Republican eye-rolling claim that letting mental patients and ideological fanatics roam the public domain with weapons of mass murder is a constitutional right. There were no automatic rifles when the Second Amendment was passed in 1791, foreigners have been telling Americans for years.
That is why Obama’s calls, already as a senator, to ban assault weapons and impose criminal checkups on gun buyers were widely admired, as was his lamentation Tuesday in Dallas, “We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.”
However, eight years after landing in the White House, it is clear that Obama will bequeath to his successor the same situation he inherited.
Obama now blames the Republican Congress for his ineffectiveness on this front.
This is unconvincing. First, an effective leader would have proposed a bill despite its opponents’ numbers, in order to at least pit them against their voters and the press.
Second, Obama originally enjoyed a Democratic majority in both houses. He could have acted, but never did.
That same failure to act is now equally glaring, and far more dangerous, on the social front.
RACIAL TENSION has been fermenting across the US long before last week’s incidents.
Demonstrations followed police’s fatal shooting two years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, of 18-year-old black man Michael Brown, a watershed event that was both preceded and followed by countless other violent incidents that involved white policemen and black suspects, and thus raised widespread charges of racially driven police brutality.
The validity of this impression is debatable, but there can be no debating that a critical mass of America’s lower classes feels abused by police. There is also no disagreement concerning this population’s contribution to Obama’s political success, nor to the high hopes this constituency placed in his rise to the presidency.
Sadly, there now is also general agreement that for this electorate, Obama has been a disappointment.
The jury is still out concerning the success of what Obama sees as his main social achievement, healthcare reform. However, from the broad viewpoint of American society’s social problems, healthcare was a marginal problem.
America’s poor need new opportunities in education, employment and housing no less urgently, arguably more, than they need better access to health insurance.
Obama, alas, arrived in office without a New Deal-type of plan to reinvent disenfranchised America’s future, just as his healthcare reform was not pieced together until well after he took office.
That is why, as he prepares to leave office, America’s social gaps are statistically pretty much what they were when he arrived, and emotionally even worse.
“I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change,” he told his somber audience during the memorial address in Dallas. “I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.”
So have we.