A federal government investigation will determine whether the shooting of Sterling, a black man, came as a result of police negligence or misconduct. On the surface, it would seem the white officers involved, having to make a quick judgment in a matter of seconds in chaotic conditions, very well may have felt a legitimate threat to their lives that led to the fatal decision to use deadly force. Sterling was a career criminal engaged in a criminal enterprise and known to have an illegal gun when police approached him; also having had a recent arrest for possession of drugs, he may have been in an impaired state at that time and not using good sense by not following police orders and then struggling even after having a Taser used upon him.
But having a record and acting illegally doesn’t deserve getting killed. The events as understood by some in the community, particularly among blacks, pointed to insufficient provocation to justify lethal force. The investigation will sort this out, mistake or accident, but almost certainly will not proffer a third option: the white officers killed a black man because of some deep-seated, if not recognizable on the surface, racial animosity.
That race-based motive, regrettably, by contrast seems the exact precipitant of the death of the law enforcement officers yesterday. The shooter, Gavin Eugene Long, a black from Kansas City most recently but prior military, apparently lured them into an ambush and opened fire. In the weeks prior to his carnage, he had expressed through various media anti-government sentiments focused on the belief that authorities oppressed minorities and that violent counteraction to the Sterling shooting, among others, against police was appropriate. In other words, his intervention culminated the worst fears: that the protests that ensued from the Sterling shooting, all too often featuring rhetoric condemning an authoritarian state waging war on blacks, motivated a racist nutjob like this (who among his victims included a black man, Jackson) to act with deadly implications.
Of course, most of the organized protesting advocated addressing the problems they alleged through peaceful political means. But some tolerated discourse that presumed the state apparatus waged some kind of war on blacks, even as the data show police do not use deadly force against blacks more often than whites. Others that descended on the city like a plague even called for overthrow of the government by any means possible. Such actions only threw fuel on a fire that drew in the likes of Long.
Many politicians stayed away from using or endorsing such language. For example, even as Gov. John Bel Edwards expressed skepticism at the rectitude of police actions, when after the Sterling incident he called for more law enforcement training and said he had “serious concerns” about the occurrence, he did not lapse into implying the perpetration of state-sponsored oppression of blacks. But, unfortunately, a few others did or made appearances at protests in a way that lent credibility to that absurd view, and despite their nonviolent intentions this could do nothing to discourage the Longs of the world from bringing violence to Baton Rouge.
Simply, the time to protest has ended. We know many in the black community are wary of the police, but to progress in smoothing out relations only will occur after discovering the truth of the Sterling event, to know how to proceed with that data in hand. Nothing more constructive can come from more protests, and these when politicized pose a risk of attracting more of the unhinged. Likewise, the use of Sterling’s death by special interests and policy-makers to achieve political purposes more likely will prove counterproductive to needed progress , as it essentially has been from the start. An approach such as Mayor-Pres. Kip Holden’s, which acknowledged the tragedy and promised changes if needed then stayed out of the limelight on this issue, foolishly derided by some, in retrospect has turned out as the wisest course of action.
At the same time, whether police actions caused any mistrust among minorities in Baton Rouge, authorities should adopt techniques to reduce what seems evidently present. As noted by mayoral candidate and state Rep. Denise Marcelle, who otherwise inadvertently yet irresponsibly ratcheted up tensions as a fellow traveler with the more radical elements, many imported, slinging accusations at demonstrations, with better community relations maybe officers on the scene would have had a better idea of Sterling’s temperament and have been able successfully to defuse that situation.
That a sick outsider committed this horrible crime and it was not homegrown shows undiminished capacity of Baton Rouge’s people as a resource for positive change in the city. A worldview of a state war against minorities contrary to reality should be disavowed by all concerned, for it supports a radical agenda incompatible with the best interests of Baton Rougeans. Yet policy-makers must not ignore all other realistic concerns and must set to work in identifying and tackling these. As long as that does not occur, the environment remains ripe for those intent on mayhem to further their interests in exactly that way.