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How Can Dallas Turn the Lessons of the Streets Into a Program of Change?

Ending systemic racism will require more than sympathy and well-meaning gestures. It will require changing how power is wielded in America.
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Tear gas or smoke? Protesters and Chief U. Reneé Hall are at odds about whether tear gas was used on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge raid. (Photo by Trace Miller)
Dallas—and the country—is experiencing the most widespread movement of direct action we have seen in more than 60 years. People are taking to the streets to demand that this city wakes up, listens, and sees the systemic and endemic racism that has defined the lives of people of color in America for what it is. If real progress is going to be made, however, that direct action must advance an agenda of change.

Based on the many conversations going on right now, there is a hunger for change. When Love Field swiftly moves to take down a statue of a racist cop, when the hosts of sports talk station The Ticket spend a week soul searching, you know we have entered a new kind of moment. Reforms that weren’t imaginable a month ago now seem possible.

Change is already happening. Los Angeles may redeploy public funds from its police budget to fund community development. The Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department. Even during the disastrous Dallas City Council meeting Friday, the city manager presented a list of possible reforms, and promising ideas were put forth by council members, like reimagining the police academy and banning elected officials from taking campaign donations from police unions.

This next step, however, concerns me. A knee-jerk response to the crisis will likely miss the monumental scale of the problem. Racism runs through every aspect and every institution of American society. It is baked into the structures of power that hold our city, state, and country together. Racism is so much a part of American life that we are blind to most of the insidious ways it defines our culture. Confronting that is going to take courage, not only from our neighbors who have taken to the streets but from all of us.

Over the past week, I have seen a lot of well-meaning efforts to confront the problem. There have been the numerous corporate statements backing Black Lives Matter; public symbols of support, like the blackout of Reunion Tower; and the sharing of articles and ideas on social media about how to support businesses owned by people of color, contribute to organizations that work in disadvantaged communities, and raise money to help repair the damage to properties that took the punch of the anger that manifested in Dallas’ streets. These are not meaningless gestures. They represent people in positions of power and privilege saying, “We hear you.”

But ultimately these are only gestures. They are the kinds of gestures that have been made before, and they are gestures that have proven hollow when it comes to making meaningful change. Real change is going to need to strike more deeply, and it is going to require more than giving our attention, time, and money. But to understand what real change looks like, we must first confront assumptions about how our society works.

The scene on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, where 674 peaceful protesters were detained. (Photo by Trace Miller)

Violence and Protest

If we want to move toward change, we must begin by understanding the meaning of the protests. That starts by accepting a paradox: violence is an intrinsic part of nonviolent protest. In the wake of the property destruction and looting that took place two weekends ago, there have been attempts to carve out the peaceful protesters from the bad actors—to decry the violence and to praise those who call for justice without damaging property. But we can’t confront what is at stake in the protests unless we see the entirety of the protests—the peaceful demonstrations; the civil disobedience; the brutality of the police response; and, yes, the looting—through a lens of violence.

Nonviolent protests earn their power through the threat of violence. Acts of civil disobedience rooted in justice threaten the values of a society, test the existing power structures, and invite those in power—in this case, police officers, their leadership, our elected governmental officials—to reveal themselves through their response to that disobedience.

The protesters perform an act of public sacrifice, allowing their bodies to be beaten and maimed in order to hold up a mirror to our society and bear witness to the machinery of injustice. When nonviolent protests are met with violence, as they have been in Dallas, we know that the message of the nonviolent protesters strikes at the core of the value system of that society—its understanding of its authority, civic order, and conceptions of justice.

In this way, the past week’s protests are part of a historical lineage of nonviolent protest whose power and legitimacy are earned in direct relation to the violence inflicted upon it. This is what happened at Selma, in Birmingham, and throughout the South during the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, the violence that greeted nonviolent protesters unmasked a society that was more devoted to maintaining a state-sanctioned system of apartheid than to protecting equal justice under the law. This unmasking was accomplished by the little girls who were spit on while walking to school in Little Rock, the demonstrators who were attacked with police dogs and fire hoses in the streets of Birmingham, and the marchers who were beaten and gassed on the bridge of Selma.

It has been frightening to see echoes of images we once thought buried to history emerge on the streets of Dallas. We have seen police fire sponge bullets that split open the head of a young woman, gouged out the eye of a young man, and smashed the jaw of another man. We have seen police fire tear gas—a chemical weapon banned internationally in the field of warfare—into a crowd of peaceful protesters on Harwood Street who presented themselves to the police on their knees with their hands up. We have watched live on Facebook as protesters were trapped, gassed, and shot at by Dallas police and state troopers on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, the public and political reaction to civil disobedience demonstrates that there are people in our society who are “more devoted to order than to justice.” In the 1960s, protests revealed that much of the American public was more devoted to maintaining the order established by southern apartheid than to the ideals of justice expounded in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

These recent protests, however, have revealed something else. These protesters have unmasked a culture of policing whose authority and violence are understood as self-justifying. It is a culture of policing that is not only responsible for shooting and killing more than 1,000 people every year in the United States, but one that is also trained to quash acts of civil disobedience through militarized tactics and force. The protesters have unmasked a society whose law enforcement is violently protective of a system of order and control. As we move forward, we must then ask ourselves: what kind of order is it?

Since the beginning of the protests, there have been efforts, particularly by those in positions of power, to try to segregate peaceful protesters from so-called “rioters” and “looters” who damaged property in downtown, Deep Ellum, and elsewhere. Looting and property destruction are detrimental to the protest movement. Not only does it harm innocent small-business owners, but it also serves to justify, in the eyes of the state and many others, the violence inflicted upon acts of civil disobedience, diluting the powerful witness born by nonviolent protesters. But we cannot fall into the trap of ignoring the rioting, passing it off as being committed by “outsiders.” To do so is to protect a false ideal of the society in which we live and to ignore the true nature of its injustices. As Dr. King understood, riots participate in their own brand of unmasking.

“[Urban riots] may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood,” King said during a particularly tumultuous summer in 1967. “Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the White community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the White man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking.”

Riots are not an aberration of nonviolent protests; they are ancillary expressions of anger and desperation. The riots force us to look at the ugly nature of the social order that has birthed such virulent resistance, both violent and nonviolent. It is an order whose injustices extend beyond instances of police brutality, murder, and corruption, and into every aspect of social, cultural, economic, and political life.

This is why it is so frustrating when governors and mayors try to dismiss the perpetrators as “outsiders” or, like the mayor of Minneapolis, can’t comprehend why someone would burn down his own neighborhood. Their incomprehension betrays their inability to see that the anger fueling the rioting is a desperate grasp at dignity and meaning—that the riots are an attempt to negate and defy a social, political, and economic order that has had its knee pressed into the necks of Black communities for 400 years.

Scenes from a protest in Dallas on June 5, 2020. (Photo by Miles Hearne)

A Day of Reckoning

If we are to uproot the injustice and racism that have shaped American history, then we must reckon with the beaten bodies of protesters in the streets of Dallas. This reckoning will require that we confront our self-delusions and ignorance. We—and by “we,” I mean White people—must come to terms with our complicity in maintaining and protecting a society built on injustice.

The process begins by listening and taking what we hear seriously. When I try to listen to the voices of the people on the streets, I hear questions that don’t merely address injustice; they reveal the existence of a bizarro America, a country that is an inversion of the ideals that many of us were taught to believe this country embodied. The questions are simple:

Why do American police officers kill more people than the police departments of any other developed country?

Why is there a culture within police departments that makes some officers feel like they are outside the law and entitled to bully, entrap, or arrest citizens without cause?

Why are police officers protected by qualified immunity—while other professions that deal with life-and-death situations, like doctors, do not enjoy similar protection under the law?

Why do police unions make it so difficult to fire bad or violent police officers?

Why do our police departments drive the same vehicles that the U.S. Marine Corps used in the Battle of Fallujah?

Why can we afford to arm our local police like military units, but we can’t provide adequate protective equipment to doctors and nurses during a pandemic?

Why are our streets broken, our schools underfunded, our community programs underfunded, our economic assistance programs underfunded, our rec centers underfunded, our health clinics underfunded, our community arts and culture organizations underfunded, and our after-school programs underfunded, but more than 50 percent of the Dallas municipal budget every year goes to police?

Why is the income gap between White and Black Americans the same as it was since 1970?

Why, on average, are White households worth 20 percent more than Black households?

Why is the average student loan debt of Black Americans $7,400 more than White Americans?

Why do Black women make 61 cents for every dollar a White man makes?

Why do single Black women aged 36 to 49 have an average net worth of $5, while single White women in the same age range have a net worth of $42,000?

Why do 19 percent of Black households have a net worth of zero or negative?

Why are Blacks incarcerated at five times the rate of Whites?

Why do Blacks and Hispanics make up 32 percent of the American population but 56 percent of the population of incarcerated people?

Why are 43 percent of all drug arrests for marijuana—a drug now legal in many states—and Blacks are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession?

Why are the pharmaceutical corporations that effectively marketed the opioids that fueled the largest addiction epidemic in world history—resulting in more than 450,000 deaths to date—still some of the most valuable companies in the world and their CEOs worth billions?

Why are 69 percent of detainees who cannot post bail and are imprisoned while awaiting trial persons of color?

Why are so many of our prisons run by publicly traded companies that need to keep their beds full or risk losing stock market value?

Why do these same prisons force their inmates to work in factories that produce products that we buy—including products sold by Victoria’s Secret, J.C. Penney, and other large brands—at an average wage of around 86 cents per day, a system of forced labor that any rational human being would see as tantamount to modern-day slavery?

Why, when people are released from prison, are there inadequate programs for rehabilitating, reemploying, and reincorporating former inmates who have served their sentences, while at the same time there are laws that strip these individuals of many of their civil rights, including the right to vote, and prohibit them from pursuing many avenues of employment?

Why is one of the most potent predictors of recidivism being a Black male?

Why did we build highways through the hearts of nearly every black and brown community in Dallas that had struggled during the first half of the 20th century to establish social stability and self-reliance despite policies that promoted racism and segregation?

Why do we continue to steer public tax dollars into fueling economic growth that redistributes those tax dollars to wealthy developers and corporations that build and relocate into new cities that sprout from former cornfields, ensuring that the economic center of the region—with its jobs and opportunities—moves farther and farther from established urban neighborhoods, forcing a worker exodus that ensures that individual economic mobility comes at the cost of the disruption and disinvestment in historic communities of color?

Why when we reinvest in communities of color does it typically result in displacement and gentrification?

Why do we accept that the phrase “food desert” has become commonplace and normalized?

Why were the hours-long voting lines caused by the closing of 400-plus polling locations in Texas during the last election disproportionately in communities of color?

Why, during this same election, did Arizona close 200 polling locations, and Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina all close over 250 polling locations—all with a disproportionate impact on communities of color?

Why were 17 million Americans purged from voter rolls between 2016 and 2018, with higher rates of purging taking place in states with histories of discrimination, including Virginia, Texas, Georgia, and Arizona?

Why do communities of color breathe in 40 percent more polluted air than White communities?

Why do 68 percent of Blacks live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant even though they only make up 13 percent of the population?

Why are Black and Latino communities more likely to be located near toxic sites?

Why is Shingle Mountain still in South Dallas?

Why do Blacks have the lowest life expectancy when compared to Asian Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Native Americans?

Why do Blacks have higher rates of mortality than any other racial or ethnic group for eight of the top 10 causes of death?

Why are Blacks twice as likely as White Americans to develop diabetes?

Why does a pandemic in Dallas disproportionately affect communities of color?

Why, a half-century after Jim Crow, is access to jobs, quality education, and healthcare still inequitably distributed in Dallas along racial lines?

Why was it a police officer’s first instinct, upon walking into a dark apartment, to draw her weapon and shoot to kill a man holding a tub of ice cream?

Why did a police officer kill Eric Garner?

And Ezell Ford?

And Michelle Cusseaux?

And Tanisha Anderson?

And Tamir Rice?

And Natasha McKenna?

And Walter Scott?

And Bettie Jones?

And Philando Castile?

And Atatiana Jefferson?

And Eric Reason?

And Dominique Clayton?

And Breonna Taylor?

And Botham Jean?

And Jordan Edwards?

And Christian Taylor?

And Jason Harrison?

And Bertrand Davis?

And Fred Bradford?

And Clinton Allen?

And James Harper?

And Etta Collins?

And Santos Rodriguez?

And George Floyd?

Scenes from a June 5, 2020 protest in Dallas. (Photo by Miles Hearne)

A Relinquishing of Power

We at D Magazine have written about some of these issues; others we have covered insufficiently. There have been efforts locally and nationally to deal with some of these problems, and yet there never seems to be much progress. Instead, the issues are obscured as the push for reform becomes politicized and the conflict in the streets evolves into conflicts within our institutions of government. Those who are invested in the status quo move in and exert their power and influence. Promises are made, ideologies defended, policy proposals stalled or dismantled. We will likely see this unfold again in the coming weeks.

It is not an accident that nothing has fundamentally changed since the deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcom X; that the balance of power between two increasingly similar political parties perpetuates a system of injustice; that American political discourse has become largely dysfunctional and meaningless; that a half-century of efforts to integrate, empower, reimagine, and rework society have failed. Do we need more evidence that both the conservative and liberal agendas have failed than the cruel irony that as a Republican president threatens to deploy military troops to our nation’s cities, a Democratic president is responsible for arming police forces with military weapons to begin with?

Part of the problem is that there has been a widespread loss of faith across the entire political spectrum in the very purpose of government and the effectiveness of representational democracy in protecting rights and liberties. Over the past 40 years, the country’s economy has increasingly resembled a system of corporate communism responsible for the largest redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich in the history of the world. Meanwhile, much of the power to affect change, advance reform, and promote justice has been outsourced to a network of NGOs, nonprofits, and philanthropic foundations that offer piecemeal solutions that don’t disrupt the fundamental structures of wealth and power.

Journalist Anand Giridharadas recently observed that today’s elite may be among the most socially concerned in history, and yet they are “by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history.” He echoes Marcus Garvey’s claim that “The Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies” were better friends to people of color than “all other groups of hypocritical Whites put together” and Dr. King’s disappointment with “the White moderate,” who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

I hear questions that don’t merely address injustice; they reveal the existence of a bizarro America, a country that is an inversion of the ideals that many of us were taught to believe this country embodied.

James Baldwin warned us that the pursuit of justice cannot simply mean reforming existing American society or enacting policies that further integrate it. To do so is to ignore that America’s injustice and racism are not a reflection of a failure of American society; they are a perfect expression of that society.

“How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should?” Baldwin said about the hypocrisy at the core of American identity. “White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the White man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: the price of the liberation of the White people is the liberation of the Blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.”

It has been one of the strange facets of this crisis that, at a time when record numbers of Dallasites have taken to the streets to demand an end to racism, the city’s mayor, manager, and police chief are all Black. Rather than confuse us, this should offer the strongest confirmation of Baldwin’s contention that merely expanding access to existing political structures is an insufficient strategy for change. After all, how can you claim our city’s government has rooted out racism when a cabal of wealthy White men still hold enough sway over the political machinery that they can hand-pick mayors and council members, while underwriting political corruption that has compromised the leadership of southern Dallas for generations?

These kinds of contradictions exist everywhere in our responses to racism. How do you promote justice in a society whose entire conception of policing is rooted in a historical strategy of colonial subjugation? How do you undo the hereditary impact of centuries of the economic disenfranchisement of Blacks when so many Americans treat the case for reparations as laughable? How do you care for the health and safety of Black Americans when, even during a pandemic, there is no serious political push to expand access to healthcare to all Americans? How do you promise a better future to Black Americans when the decades since the civil rights movement have seen a systematic dismantling of the public school system and an evolution in higher education that makes crippling debt a generational rite of passage?

Baldwin understood that to forge the new standards of living that will lead to “total liberation,” it is not enough to reform policy. We must recast our systems of power. It is not enough to reform our political order. We must change ourselves. That is because systemic racism is a strategy by which those in power in America retain their stranglehold on that power and protect themselves from confronting the country’s great, unspoken fear: that to truly live the ideals of our founders—ideals they enshrined in law but could not themselves embody or protect—it will take more than reform. It will require a relinquishing of power.

America’s hatred of people of color, Baldwin argued, was a projection of America’s hatred of itself, a hatred of the moral failures that are as fundamental to the founding of this country as the Declaration of Independence. The only way America will overcome this hatred is by humbling itself, by descending into the experience of injustice and allowing itself to be trampled upon, beaten, and broken—as our neighbors in the streets have been in recent weeks—so the country’s traditional power structures are stripped and America can reemerge again as a more perfect union bound, through love, in a single fate.

“The White man’s unadmitted—and apparently, to him, unspeakable—private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro,” Baldwin wrote. “The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveler’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark.”

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