When I was kid I lived in Santa Monica, California, and I spent a lot of my time on the beach and the pier doing what kids are supposed to do: having fun and not thinking about the troubles in the world. The Vietnam War was raging, there was trouble at home and abroad, but even though I was aware of the turmoil, as a kid you just get on with your life.
One afternoon when I was at the base of Santa Monica pier with my childhood friend eating a hotdog, a man came running down the boardwalk in obvious distress, clutching his belly which was bleeding from a wound. He was a black man in his late twenties, obviously afraid and in pain. He ran off through the crowd toward Venice Beach. A few moments later two white men came running down the planks, one holding a bloodied knife in his hand, and they ran off after the injured man who was obviously the victim of their violence.
At the time I didn't think of the event in racial terms. Though LA had significant racial problems (only a few years perviously, the neighborhood of Watts had exploded into riots in which nearly three dozen people had been killed), but Santa Monica wasn't exactly a hotbed of troubles or racial diversity. And this stabbing probably wasn't, in fact, racially motivated but was more likely just a typical act of criminal violence. But as time went by, that terrible moment came to signify or symbolize for me the racial tensions that so significantly mark the United States.
The unfortunate truth is that the US has been engaged in a kind of race war since its inception as a country. I hesitate to use the phrase 'race war' because it is provocative and troubling. But given the long history of conflict, it is a difficult phrase to avoid. The US is a country that was founded on large part on slavery, which is a profoundly violent institution. Historically much of the slave trade has, in fact, been a by product of war as one country made slaves of the captured victims of their opponent. But the violence in American race relations certainly didn't stop with the surrender at Appomattox. The Jim Crow laws legalized the second-class status of blacks in much of the US, violence against blacks was a regular feature of US life, and the legal system did very little to protect blacks from violence and discrimination. In my own lifetime the drug trade that has done so much damage to blacks in America was partly a result of US activity in Indochina, and according to John Ehrlichman, Nixon specifically used the so-called "war on drugs" to specifically target the anti-war left and black Americans.
The recent shootings of black Americans by police is, of course, nothing new. Police in the US have always targeted blacks and black people have always been disproportionally treated and violated. But modern technology has allowed us to see this disproportionate treatment in a new light. It has become more difficult for police to sweep such incidents under the rug and behind the blue line of silence. So while blacks have always been the victims of such violence, people's ability to record events has laid bare the real nature of the violence and exacerbated an already tense situation. And rightly so. People need to be angry and they need to make noise and they need to protest. Sadly, violence begets violence and racial tensions can inevitably morph into something like a genuine race war. When a people are treated to decades (even centuries) of violence, and things don't seem to be getting any better, some people will inevitably strike out in the most extreme ways. This morning the CBC interviewed a black activist who was a former police sergeant in the US. He was genuinely shocked that people were surprised at what happened in Dallas last night. Given the history of race relations in the US, he was only surprised that it took this long for such an event to occur.
People are saying that the US is at a crossroads. This is probably true. However, it is difficult to see a way forward. The fact is that the events of the past few years has taught us that the US justice system is simply too corrupt or not prepared to deal with police violence in a serious way. Police are given more or less carte blanche to act whatever way they see fit and they will not be held to account. Black activists are pushing for civilian run police forces (a very good idea in my opinion) but the idea is getting no traction with the political establishment. Meanwhile the violence continues and nothing is being done.
For a couple of news cycles people will talk about the events in Dallas but it is hard to imagine it will have any effect other than making things worse. Police are going to be even more tense and nervous and surely more violence will be the result. This could lead to even more such events, and on and on we go. That is the problem with war and violence; it seems to take on a life of its own and we all suffer.