Last week over the course of three days, we saw photographs and video posted online of the killings of black men in St. Paul, Minn., and Baton Rouge, La., by white policemen, and of five white policemen in Dallas by a black man. These killings have catalyzed a new discussion of the role of race in America. I believe we are holding the wrong discussion.
Yes, it is true that the white policemen, and probably the two black men, died because of their skin color. Yes, it is true, as the Albuquerque Journal reported Sunday, that one of its photographers was stopped and cuffed by an Albuquerque cop because he was black. Yes, it is true that a young black friend of mine from Albuquerque was stopped by a white policeman in a suburb of Phoenix while riding a bicycle on the sidewalk because he was black.
Yes, it is true that blacks and other people of color are harassed, or worse, by whites every day because they are black or brown or red or whatever. And it s indisputably true that such harassment, or worse, has been a profound feature of life ever since the races started coexisting on this continent half a millennium ago.
This discussion of conflict and its causes is perhaps more acute and urgent in New Mexico than anywhere else in America. A majority of our citizens are people of color. Nearly half our population is Hispanic.
We have been struggling and failing and sometimes succeeding in dealing with racial conflict longer and more profoundly than anywhere else in America. Despite the cant perpetrated by political speeches and newspaper editorials, our multiracial society has never been harmonious. It started with war and progressed to revolution before settling into uneasy mutual accommodation. Even today, racial hostility is as common as ethnic amity.
The key point, however, is not that we all too often don’t much like each other; it is that in spite of distrust, suspicion and profound differences, we have learned to live with each other. That is a lesson much of the rest of America has yet to learn.
Surely there are things the bloodshed of the past week in Minnesota, Louisiana and Texas can teach us; but equally surely, there are things we, and America, can learn from our own experience.
Here is one small fact to ponder: The Albuquerque Police Department has been excoriated for all manner of misconduct, from excessive and unjustified use of force to building a blue wall against civilian criticism to resisting even the most moderate reforms in everything from tactics to training to community relations. But no one, not even the U.S. Department of Justice, has accused it of racism.
Yes, the APD has killed scores of people in recent years, many of them unarmed and unresisting, some of them shot in the back, many merely drunk or crazy or drug addled. But there has been no evidence—nor even any serious allegations—that these men and women were killed because of their race.
The fact that New Mexico’s largest police force is an equal-opportunity killer is hardly a justification of its misdeeds, but it does tell you something about our own society.
So does the reaction around the country to the killing of blacks and whites last week. The predominant reaction has been peace marches and rallies all over the country, including one in Albuquerque.
In the wake of last week’s killings, we could ask ourselves which is worse, the murder of blacks by whites or of whites by blacks. But the question is fatuous, if not downright vile. Both are evil. Both need to stop.
How do we stop them? The movement called Black Lives Matter has fastened on to a piece of the truth. So have the citizens of Dallas, the presidential candidates and President Barack Obama himself in mourning the killing of policemen who, ironically, died while protecting those who were protesting against police violence.
There is, it seems to me, a larger truth soaring above these bits of truth. It is simple: Lives matter.
To a startling and shameful degree, we have become inured to violent death. We see it on television, on our computers and cell phones, in our movies and on our streets. We see it in the inability of the federal, state and local governments to control weapons with no purpose except to kill people. We see it in the words of a presidential candidate who urges his followers to attack protesters and promises to pay their legal bills if they are prosecuted for violence.
Violence has lost its ability to shock us. What, another massacre? Another five or 50 people shot to death last night? Time to drive to work and get on with our lives. Life no longer seems precious but disposable.
But suppose we tried to refocus on that preciousness, on the sense that all lives are valuable. A homeless man is not merely somebody to chase from one illegal encampment to another but a human being who needs a shelter as much as you and I. A drug addict is not an animal but a human being suffering from an illness beyond his capacity to cure. A veteran with PTSD is not a woman to be lied to by the very federal agency created to help her, but a citizen incapacitated while serving at the behest of that same government. And a person shot to death by a policeman in his own Albuquerque backyard is simply a citizen wronged, no matter what his race.
So I propose that we here in New Mexico, with all our advantages of centuries of dealing with conflict, form a new group called simply Lives Matter. What would be the agenda of such a group? To discover why people fail in the ways they do, and find out what can be done about it. To find homes for the homeless, treatment for the mentally ill, antidotes for the addicted. To hire policemen who care and to train cops who know how to protect those who are fragile; no matter whether they are victims or perps, they are still human, still precious.
In other words, to create a society in which lives matter. Every life.