Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Obama’s race failure

The first African American president will end his second term in office with racial tensions at their highest mark in decades, writes Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

When news came in that two police officers were shot dead inside a court house in Michigan on Monday, 11 July, most media coverage assumed it was yet another ugly episode in increasing racial tension that has gripped most major US cities over the past week. Hardly three days had passed since the fatal shooting of five police officers in Dallas, Texas, a week ago while securing a peaceful rally protesting the killing of two African Americans by police.

It turned out the killer was a white convict who stole a pistol from one of the officers and started shooting while trying to escape. He was shot dead by other police officers at the scene. But the reality remains that racial tensions in the US have never run so high in decades, and police officials have announced preparing for a possible wave of lethal attacks against them by angry, young African Americans infuriated by widely circulated videos of police officers killing Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

Possibly no one feels in a worst position than Barack Obama, the first African American president in US history. On Tuesday, he visited Dallas, together with his predecessor, George W Bush, to mourn the death of the five police officers. While violence broke out in different US cities following the killing of the two African Americans in Louisiana and Minnesota, and the death of the five officers in Dallas, Obama was in Warsaw, Poland, to attend a NATO summit. He cut his visit short and returned home while trying to strike a difficult balance between grief over the death of the police officers and stemming the growing division in US society over the increasing number of incidents in which policemen shoot dead African Americans.

Different US polls show that African Americans are more likely to be killed in confrontations with police compared to white Americans or those who belong to any other race. Out of 509 people shot dead by police this year, 24.2 per cent were African Americans and 46.5 per cent were white, according to a CNN poll. But African Americans make up 13.3 per cent of the population, compared to 77.1 per cent who are white.

Obama did not want to admit failure in improving race relations during his eight years in office, or lessening the clear bias among white policemen against African Americans. Instead, he claimed that the one part of the problem was that Americans became more aware of the problem due to the widespread use of social media and the streaming of videos that showed gruesome details of the killings of both Sterling and Castile.

“When we start suggesting that somehow there is this enormous polarisation and we’re back to the situation in the 1960s — that’s just not true,” Obama said at a news conference in Warsaw on Saturday. “You’re not seeing riots, and you’re not seeing police going after people who are protesting peacefully. And the fact that we’re aware of it may increase some anxiety right now, and hurt and anger,” he added. “But it’s been said, sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

African American activists immediately criticised Obama for choosing to visit Dallas upon his return to the US, instead of visiting Louisiana or Minnesota where the two African American victims were killed. Yet, some police officials have also been unhappy with Obama’s statements, saying that his criticism of police conduct has fuelled racial tensions and provided ammunition for increasing anger among African Americans.

In his remarks after the killing of the police officers in Dallas, Obama expressed solidarity with the police force, saying the vast majority were carrying out their jobs in a proper manner and risking their lives. But only a few hours earlier, and before the news came in from Dallas, he was more critical of the police.

“When people say ‘Black lives matter,’ that doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter; it just means all lives matter. But right now the big concern is the fact that the data shows black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents,” Obama said.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported Tuesday that police departments across the United States were searching for new tactics in a more difficult era of racial tension, increasingly lethal mass shootings and global terrorism.

Following the Dallas shooting, the deadliest assault on US law enforcement since the 11 September 2001 attacks, nearly half of America’s 30 biggest cities issued directives to pair up police officers on calls to boost safety.

And one, Indianapolis, said it would consider the use of robots to deliver lethal force, an unprecedented tactic until Thursday when the Dallas police department used a military-grade robot to deliver and detonate explosives where the shooter was holed up.

While a wave of anti-police protests since the 2014 killing of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, has revived memories of 1960s protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War, Thursday’s shooting marked something different: a willingness to take up arms against the police.

Ambushes against police on Thursday and Friday in Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri added to a sense of being under siege and vulnerable at a time when many departments were already grappling with heightened community suspicion over the use of deadly force.

Responding to the Dallas shooting, Denver’s police union wants officers to wear riot gear for local protests and to be armed with AR-15 assault rifles while patrolling Denver International Airport, the union said in a letter to the mayor published in The Denver Post.

The Police Association of New Orleans wants patrol vehicles to be equipped with assault rifles so officers are better prepared, said Captain Michael Glasser, the union’s president.

Police officers in Indianapolis already have semi-automatic rifles at their disposal but want more military-type training and military equipment through a Pentagon-led programme, said Rick Snyder, the president of the Indianapolis police union.

Snyder said he expected to see a “paradigm shift” in how police are trained to monitor demonstrations following the Dallas shooting. “I think we’ll fall back on military training,” he said. “We have to pull on the experiences of our military in Iraq, where they were often shot at by snipers from elevated positions.”

The most immediate change is the pairing up of officers. Thirteen of the country’s 30 biggest city police department said they are pairing up officers — a change that could strain already thinly staffed police ranks in some regions.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico — one of several cities dealing with an officer shortage — pairing officers could mean “possibly longer response times for lower priority calls,” said its police spokesman, Simon Drobik. And for cities with tight municipal budgets, some question whether this expensive strategy can last beyond the short term.

Doubling up officers “is a resource-intense approach and it will be a significant challenge for some police departments to sustain that strategy for very long,” said Thomas Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA), which represents police chiefs from the country’s largest cities.

He predicted over the longer term that police will increase surveillance and expand their security presence at major events across the country. “This will cause complaints about violating people’s constitutional rights to free assembly, but it is the only way to guarantee safety,” he said.

“We need to figure out a way to ensure that police officers don’t get targeted, because right now they do have targets on their backs,” said Andrea Edmiston, director of governmental affairs for the National Association of Police Organisations, which represents about 241,000 police officers.

Sergeant Paul Kelly, president of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, expects a greater focus on how to prevent sniper attacks, from searching areas in advance for abandoned cars or explosives to positioning helicopters overhead.

“The problem is you don’t know if someone who just shows up to the rally is now going to be your shooter,” Kelly said.

Indianapolis police spokesman Kendale Adams said his department would consider using a robot to deliver a bomb. “Our team will consider all options in [a] deadly force encounter,” he said in an email to Reuters.

If every police department had New York City’s resources, the challenges would be much less. New York police spokesman Stephen Davis said some 1,500 of the city’s 36,000 police officers have received coordinated heavy weapons training. Davis said there are officers around the clock who can respond to an active shooter situation in an estimated three to five minutes.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group, said that as 90 per cent of America’s 18,000 police forces have under 50 officers, many simply cannot afford the kind of staff necessary to respond as quickly as needed to mass shootings.

Wexler said the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 had been a milestone for police in realising that major public events could become targets.

“Police departments will have to deploy additional forces to what have traditionally been low-risk events,” he said, “because those events now have the potential for some extremist or madman to commit violent acts.”

But he said that the best way to reduce deaths from attacks with semi-automatic weapons is to gain the trust of local communities, so people will come forward and help prevent attacks. Once an attack starts, there is only so much the police can do.

The MCCA’s Manger said that beyond police strategy and tactics, what America needs is a change of mind set.

“Everyone, on both sides, needs to take a step back.”

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