One of the biggest applause lines at the Republican National Convention was Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke’s declaration that “blue lives matter in America.”
It reverberated out of Cleveland on the first day the Republican nominee took his campaign on the road after the convention, at a stop in Winston-Salem. College student Bryce Williams elicited whoops of approval as he flashed a sign with the slogan at supporters in the stands at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex while they waited for the candidate, and Pastor Mark Burns, a frequent speaker at Trump’s rallies, interrupted himself during his opening statement to say, “And yes, blue lives matter.”
The subtext of much of the rhetoric in the Trump campaign — crafted for a white audience — is that black lives don’t matter. And whether he wins or loses in November, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has already unleashed ugly forces of intolerance and repression. In an op-ed published in the Hill on the same day of his address to the Republican National Convention, Sheriff Clarke argued that not only do the claims of Black Lives Matter lack validity, but that indeed the movement must be crushed.
“We have several forces internal and external attacking our rule of law: ISIS, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street — just to the most recent iterations of the elements who brand themselves as unique but seek the same revolutionary aim: take down the West, the philosophy of equality before the law, and replace it with their authority, their rules, their hate,” Clarke wrote in a piece entitled “This is a war, and Black Lives Matter is the enemy.”
Violence begins where dialogue ends, and down the slippery slope of violence our cherished democracy also goes. Democracy, the most precious and fragile of our public goods, depends on people with different interests and viewpoints being willing to stick with the conversation, no matter how difficult, and work things out. The scorched-earth tactic of vanquishing all opponents, embodied by Trump — and, frankly, by Fox News and the loudest voices in the Republican Party — makes democracy increasingly tenuous.
Given the national context of rising intolerance, it feels like a small wonder that the Winston-Salem Urban League hosted the first in a series of “Black & Blue Community-Police” town halls last week, with a racially mixed group of 140 people attending and with the active participation of the Winston-Salem Police Department.
James Perry, president and CEO of the Urban League, told me police-community relations are both colored by national events and charged on their own by local interactions.
Perry said some of the young, black men in the agency’s summer employment program have told him “very harrowing stories about experiences with the police.
“They felt like they were on the right side of the law,” Perry said. “They felt like they were treated unfairly. That shapes their view of law enforcement and makes it hard for them to trust the police.”
He knew he had to convene the “Black & Blue” conversations after the killing of Alton Sterling.
“Alton Sterling’s death was different,” Perry said. “The thing that made it different was it appeared on social media. People saw the police officer’s gun in Alton Sterling’s chest. They saw him pull the trigger, and they saw Sterling die and the blood gush out of his chest. With Philando Castile, his girlfriend started recording after he was shot. That’s different from Trayvon Martin, where you just read about it. There’s a way that affects your psyche. Part of the reason there was violence against police officers is people saw it happen.”
At this first forum, citizens did most of the talking, and the police listened. Really listened.
And thankfully their participation rejected the all-or-nothing proposition that the claims of black and blue lives are mutually exclusive.
“I have proudly worn blue for nearly 23 years,” Assistant Chief Catrina Thompson told the audience, “but I’ve been black all my life.”
I asked Thompson whether she thought the murder of police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas has caused a setback in the dialogue between police and the community over institutional racism. She took a deep breath and chose her words carefully, but her answer made me think there may yet be a chance for democracy, especially if we tend to it thoughtfully in our local communities.
“When these incidents happen across the country, whether it’s deaths of citizens by police of deaths of police by citizens, it gives pause,” Thompson said. “We’re trained to be vigilant, both for our own safety and for the safety of others. I’m an optimist by nature, and while there are very unsettling things going on around us, I believe that, like tonight, it has created an opportunity for dialogue.”
We may not agree on everything, but at least we’re still talking.