It’s been a horrific week. And not just in Dallas, although it’s only been 48 hours since the vicious assault that slaughtered five police officers and injured many others.
I don’t have the answers; I don’t know that anyone does. But I do have a story.
Not yet a month ago, crushed by sadness yet lit by fury, I watched news reports out of Orlando. An angry man, a semiautomatic rifle, a nightclub of happy young people – and then a floor slick with blood and 49 brilliant lives extinguished.
While I didn’t know anyone murdered that night, it felt personal. Nightclubs have always been a place for us to feel safe, behind doors that provided a respite from constant judgment and scorn. An assault like this, in that happy place, brought a deep, searing anguish, framed by our current climate of division and hatred.
Because we are human, we are driven to gather in the face of something so terrible. To share a glance, a touch, a hug, words with others who get it.
Here in Dallas that June night, we made our way to the community center. It was just hours after the news from Orlando broke; details were still fluid, but solid enough to strike horror in the heart of any decent person – and brutal enough to cast a specter of fear over our gathering.
I didn’t know if we would be targeted; if copycats would want their 15 minutes of fame by attacking those who gathered in one of the nation’s largest cities, a blue circle in a bright red state.
Yet still we came. We could do no less.
The first thing I noticed at the community center was a row of Dallas Police black-and-whites. We turned the corner, and there was another row. And another, and another. Dozens upon dozens of officers, standing in the hot, steamy rain, waving us in, helping us park. Smiling gently, with kind, sad eyes that mirrored ours. Certainly more cops than needed to help 1,000 people find their way into an open parking lot.
To frame this, let me explain something.
Tensions have been high between the gay community and Dallas Police. In the past year, there have been a stupid number of vicious attacks in the Oak Lawn “gayborhood.” People have been followed, hunted, assaulted, beaten and terrorized more than two dozen times. No arrests have been made.
There have been meetings, demands for extra police support, stories told through the swollen and battered mouths of beaten victims. Dallas Mavs owner Mark Cuban even donated $1 million to be used for extra police support. Armed citizen groups (Gays With Guns!) have begun weekend patrols.
It’s been ugly, and bitter.
This is the lens under which we gathered that June night.
Just before the vigil began, Police Chief David Brown arrived, along with the mayor. (You’ve seen both of them on TV a lot since Thursday night.) They stood alongside us as words of all colors flowed — somber, angry, heartbroken, inspiring, shaken.
We silently moved en masse onto Cedar Springs Road, a two-mile ribbon leading to the Legacy of Love memorial. We walked slowly, yet steadfast, wearing our grief but unwavering in our visibility. Tears and raindrops mingled on our cheeks.
I walked alone, at the front, on the right. As we passed every single intersection, Dallas Police officers stood on all corners, holding traffic so we could pass. They watched us, nodding somberly, but their eyes constantly scanned: spectators, the streets, buildings.
They were there to protect us, to serve. It was crystal-clear that no harm would come to us during these vulnerable hours, that our shattered hearts would be allowed to grieve, as we needed.
I felt the tension in my shoulders ease a bit with every step, guarded by those women and men in black.
I began to peel off at every intersection, walking over to rookie beat cops, sergeants, majors, captains. I reached out to each, simply saying, “Thank you. We appreciate you.”
The reactions stunned me. To a person, they showed nothing but deep respect. Not one single cop – out of hundreds – was rude, or cold, or dismissive. None looked at their buddies and rolled their eyes, or smirked, or looked at us with anything but compassion.
When you move through life as a member of a marginalized, ridiculed group, you are used to those reactions. The absence of them spoke louder than any words could. Just with the sheer numbers involved, you’d think one or two would be having a bad day, were hot or hungry, and not at their best … but no.
And there was more. Every officer shook my hand, but dozens went further. As I reached, they reached faster. They clasped my arm with both hands. They leaned in, speaking softly into my ear: “I’m so sorry.” “I wish you peace.” More than a few pulled me into bear hugs, my face pressed into wet polyester covering rock-hard Kevlar. My glasses were askew; I lost my place in the procession.
And I didn’t care. Every one of those gestures smoothed a little piece of the jagged edges of my soul. Alongside, there was Chief Brown, making every step of those two miles with us.
It was clear that our police force shared our grief at the horror of Orlando.
And there was absolutely no doubt that they stood ready to step between us and anyone who wanted to repeat that carnage.
Not in our town. Not in Dallas.
This is the same police force that stood by with respect and professionalism at the vigil last Thursday night. Photos shared during the march show officers standing next to Americans exercising their constitutional rights, smiles on all faces.
These officers knew the marchers weren’t protesting the police, but abuses of police power. They know there are very real concerns about profiling and violence that we as a nation must address, and they know the terrible incidents in other cities cast shadows on their every actions, as unfair as that is.
Are they perfect? Of course not. Are you? I’m certainly not.
A friend, forensic scientist Rob Boyle, did some math tonight, using conservative estimates. Think about this:
– There are about 1,220,545 U.S. police officers.
– There have been about 500 officer-involved shootings this year, whether “justifiable” or not. But let’s count them all, for argument’s sake. Double it, then add a bit more just to be conservative. Call it 1,240 by the end of the year.
– Again, being conservative, let’s say it’s a 1:1 ratio of cops per fatality.
That means .001% of officers will be involved in fatalities this year, even counting the ones that reasonable people would agree are justified. Knock those out, and the number shrinks even further.
Do you get how tiny .001% is? Picture 1 million baseballs dumped into a large room. Now, imagine that 10 balls are dyed red. That’s .001%.
Ten baseballs, out of 1 million.
Now, hear me: That does NOT mean the unjustifiable deaths don’t matter. They do. They are an outrage, a tragedy, a crime. They poison the decent world. They are fuel to the fire of righteous anger burning across the U.S. We must stop the tsunami of deaths.
Yet we are capable of complex, nuanced emotions. We can burn over injustice and racism, and cry out against them. And we also can grieve the loss of police officers that put their lives on the line every day.
They are not mutually exclusive.
Our Dallas officers know the people they are sworn to serve are stoked by very real anger, pain and fear.
And they are working to swing the pendulum. Chief Brown has been criticized for some of his changes – after all, at every crossroads of change stand 1,000 guardians of the past. But Dallas has methodically become a leader in community policing. Use of force and citizen complaints have plunged; the use of force policy has been significantly remodeled.
We know the people behind the badges.
And that’s why we immediately opened our hearts after our Dallas Police Department and DART Police were ambushed Thursday night.
Because we know that almost all are decent and well-trained, trying to do an impossible job in a very dicey time.
Because when the shots rang out, they ran into the barrage. They stood in front of all equally: black, white, brown.
We cannot let the few bad souls on the fringes overwhelm us, or steer us into a downward vortex of negativity. There are a few bad cops; there are a few angry, cowardly men with guns thinking violence is an answer; there are some protesters who laughed because police were being targeted.
None of these are good people. But more importantly, none of them represent the whole of their tribes.
We are not so different.
I saw that firsthand, on that rainy night less than a month ago. And the world saw it Thursday night.