Death and Happy Talk

Police officers face off with protesters in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the early hours of September 21, 2016. Photo credit: © Sean Rayford/Getty

This has been a week of exasperation over the relentless killing of innocents. The problem is that different people are exasperated by different killings.

This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry unleashed an uncharacteristically undiplomatic tirade at the United Nations over the bombings in Syria. “How can people go sit at a table with a regime that bombs hospitals and drops chlorine gas again and again and again and again and again and again, and acts with impunity?” asked the secretary of state. “Are you supposed to sit there and have happy talk in Geneva under those circumstances when you’ve signed up to a ceasefire and you don’t adhere to it? What kind of credibility do you have with any of your people?”

Kerry was talking about the Syrian government, and its bombing campaign against its own civilian population. But his outrage might give white America and the world as a whole a glimpse into the exasperation of black America at the killings this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in Charlotte, North Carolina, and earlier in Baton Rouge, Baltimore, Charleston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Ferguson, Staten Island, and more. How can black Americans remain patient and polite with a police establishment that shoots black men and black boys again and again and again and again? Is black America supposed to sit there and have happy talk with the officials responsible for so many deaths?

The parallels go deeper than you might at first imagine. Those who kill innocents rarely do so sadistically. There are always excuses and explanations, stretching notions of self-defense, exaggerating threats, claiming mistaken identities: We didn’t know the building was a hospital; we didn’t know he was just holding a wallet. And if it only happened once, or twice, or even three times, those excuses might be acceptable. But John Kerry’s exasperation is captured in his repetition of again and again and again and again and again and again. In that dramatic lament at the UN, he echoes the exasperation of so many Americans of color across the United States.

Earlier this year, on the occasion of another U.S. police killing of a black man, a colleague at the Open Society Foundations made a simple suggestion: how about disarming the police? There are many countries, she pointed out, where most police patrol without guns. Wouldn’t taking the guns away stop the killing?

At the time, I thought the suggestion was provocative but unrealistic. And then I heard the secretary of state propose a no-fly zone over parts of Syria to protect civilians — a proposal that has been repeatedly rejected as unrealistic. Still, he felt he had to say it anyway. The subtext was clear: we are being driven to extremes. It seems that if you get sufficiently exasperated, you might start thinking about extremes, like putting the weapons away.

John Kerry was speaking this week out of exasperation. Yet we all know he’ll soon be back at the table in Geneva. The same is true here at home with our police killings: There will be more investigations, commission reports, and training programs. We’ll be back at the table. More happy talk.

But that’s where the parallels should end. No simple alchemy of military and diplomatic engagement will end the carnage in Syria. But things should be more straightforward in the United States. We’re not talking about a regime dropping bombs from the sky, but police officers shooting people up close, people whose individual appearance, whose blackness, is part of what leads to the killing. If we can share the anger, and feel the pain, then we can find the strength to change, to embrace our common humanity, to stop the killing.

At the Open Society Foundations, we’re investing in a three-part strategy: supporting local activists, supporting reformers within law enforcement, and building a new institution to bridge national resources and expertise with local energy and commitment. We have to do more than try — we have to succeed. That’s what it takes to restore credibility with any of your people.