On the night of July 7, at least one shooter targeted and killed multiple police officers in Dallas during a protest against recent police shootings. On social media, some people quickly pinned the blame for the shooting on the protests themselves — arguing that the Black Lives Matter movement has incited violence against police officers by increasing social and political scrutiny against cops.
But this is a tremendously simplified view of the world. As Erin Simpson said on Twitter, "I don’t want black men shot at traffic stops. I don’t want cops shot by snipers. I don’t want kids shot at school. I don’t want any of this."
This is what America should strive for. We can and should prevent all forms of senseless violence — both against and from police. And we can’t let a violent extremist limit the political discourse around these crucial issues.
It’s possible to oppose all forms of unnecessary, unjust violence
It is not philosophically inconsistent to state this: You can oppose both violence against police and racial disparities in police shootings — by wanting to limit the unnecessary, unjust violence in the world.
The policy solutions to these two issues also aren’t in conflict.
To make the job safer for police officers, we can limit access to guns, increase resources for police, and improve how police are deployed to better target hot spots of crime. The research shows that these changes can not only make the job safer for cops but also make things safer for the communities they guard.
At the same time, we know that racial disparities in police use of force are likely driven by systemic biases in how cops are deployed and subconscious racial biases. So beyond changing how police officers are deployed, we could also improve training to limit whether police act on potential racial biases and improve cops’ ability to see genuine threats by, for example, paying less attention to a suspect’s skin color and more to his body language.
If we get this right, it can work better for everyone — both police and the people they protect. The evidence shows that police work best when the community they protect trusts them and cooperates with them. So by better targeting crime, and limiting any racial disparities in police use of force, law enforcement can increase faith and trust from the public, boosting cooperation in solving and preventing crimes to make everyone safer.
The world is frequently a messy, complicated place. Sometimes it requires people and leaders to work on issues that may seem to be in conflict. But in this case, we don’t even need to get into that. If you oppose unnecessary, unjust violence, you can oppose the senseless killing of police officers and excessive use of force by officers that hurts one racial group more than another. And we have the policy solutions and ideas to fix each problem without making the other worse.
We can’t let a violent extremist limit the abilities of our democracy
There’s another important reason to not fall into the trap of pitting these two issues against each other: Violent extremists can’t dictate the boundaries of our political discussions. As Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a press conference after the shooting, "We are not going to let a coward who would ambush police officers change our democracy."
This is exactly what people would be doing if they allowed this horrific act of violence to silence valid criticisms and goals — specifically, that we can live in a society in which one of the criminal justice system’s defining characteristics isn’t its massive racial disparities.
It’s not abnormal for Americans to ignore violent extremists to continue having serious policy conversations we need to have. In the past, for example, there have been several attacks from extremists who oppose abortions — such as in 2015, when a shooter killed people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. Although his motivations were driven in part by opposition to abortion, that didn’t stop reasonable critics of abortion from continuing to speak out in a peaceful manner.
Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. was repeatedly criticized — including by government officials — for allegedly inciting violence by leading the charge for civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s. And it was true that there was some violence — particularly riots — related to the fight for civil rights back then.
But King didn’t let the violence, which he condemned, define his approach: He knew that the civil rights movement was the right thing to do, and the criticisms he faced because of others acting violently didn’t stop him from successfully speaking and acting out in a peaceful manner.
It shouldn’t have, either. Kevin Drum, a blogger at Mother Jones, eloquently made this point:
People and groups have to be free to condemn abortion or police misconduct or anything else — sometimes soberly, sometimes not. And it's inevitable that this will occasionally inspire a maniac somewhere to resort to violence. There's really no way around this. It's obviously something for any decent person to keep in mind, but it doesn't make passionate politics culpable for the ills of the world. We can't allow the limits of our political spirit to be routinely dictated by the worst imaginable consequences.
Protests are messy. When thousands or millions of people rise up in very passionate demonstrations, some bad, violent people are going to get caught up in the cause.
But in America, we have by and large managed to reject that violence and discuss the legitimate political and social issues of the day in a peaceful, albeit contentious, public forum. The violent and extreme should not be allowed to change that.