The policeman was shot on his hands and knees checking for a bomb under his car. He had just kissed his wife goodbye at the front door and, being close to retirement, was taking every possible precaution to avoid assassination. He varied his route to the police station. He checked under his car for a bomb. He knew he was a target.
That sad scene played out in Northern Ireland several decades ago. Similar scenes and scenarios are popping up here in America. The policeman is the most visible and vulnerable symbol of a government resented by some segments of society. This friction is not new.
What I wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News back in 1992 is eerily relevant today. Rodney King was wiser than we thought.
“Can’t we work this thing out; can’t we just get along?” pleaded a distraught King. That’s not a trick question, but before Los Angeles answers it, let’s look abroad to Beirut, Belgrade, and Belfast for some guidance.
“You’re as surely born Protestant or Catholic in Ulster as you are African-American or white in America.
“But Black America and Catholic Ulster went their separate ways at this point, roughly 1970. Both minorities wanted employment and empowerment — a bigger piece of the political and economic pie. But the Northern Ireland civil rights movement was soon hijacked by a band of revolutionary terrorists whose aims were to destroy rather than reform the system. They simply harnessed the anger and energy of the underclass, molding despair into that ‘sea of support’ that terrorists need to survive.
“That didn’t happen here. African-American militants didn’t evolve into (terrorists) plugging policemen in the back. The civil rights movement here has always been (more) assimilationist than revolutionary. There is a big difference between wanting a bigger piece of the pie and burning the kitchen down.”
While we’re feverishly debating whether Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter, even our economic landscape is similar to my 1992 observations. President Kennedy having urged economic expansion since “a rising tide lifts all boats,” I noted that “our economic sea has been all but drained dry by the export of high-paying manufacturing jobs, replaced, if at all, by minimum-wage mop-and-bucket jobs.” Yes, this all sounds way too 2015ish.
How do you de-escalate a situation where policemen are being plugged in the back here in America? Where a long-serving officer of the law is gunned down just days short of retirement? Obviously we need leadership to cool things down. And since you can lead by example, Alex Haley — in his final speech in 1993 — strongly urged us “to find the good and praise it.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. sacrificed his life in leading a peaceful protest movement that changed this nation. The members of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church exhibited incredible forgiveness and restraint in the face of injustice and cold-blooded murder. Robert Kennedy gave an inspiring and calming speech in Indianapolis when American cities were aflame years ago. Indy did not burn back then. But Baltimore and Ferguson did earlier this year.
Let’s search out more buckets of water and fewer cans of gasoline to toss on the smoldering embers of black deaths and dead policemen. “Can’t we work this thing out, can’t we just get along?”
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.