A time to lower voices


Last week was to say the least, an eventful one on the national level. The week that began with the 4th of July festivities marking the 240th birthday of the nation was then marred — or maybe in a strange way honored because the process showed that even the high and mighty sooner or later, are held to account — by the new revelations and FBI's report on presidential candidate and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's email shenanigans. Then things descended into tragedy with two separate incidents in Minnesota and Louisiana involving police officers using lethal force against African-Americans. This in turn triggered more demonstrations against this sort of behavior, and as virtually everyone knows by now, a demonstration in Dallas, Texas led a deranged gunman — what other way is there to describe it? — into a horrible spasm of assassinating police officers, presumably as some form of retaliation to the prior shootings.

We are all deeply troubled by this cycle of violent incidents. What does this say about the state of our nation? Are we about to head down a dark chasm of social unrest, some of which may be peaceful and within constitutionally protected forms of legitimate free speech, but some of which may get out of hand? We live clearly, in a more volatile time than would have seemed likely a year or two ago. Racial tensions are clearly on an upswing.

We're going to suggest that this is a good moment for many to quietly reflect on all of this, and rather than post a rant on social media, this is a time to lower voices and just think for a bit. There will be ample opportunity for more direct action later.

It's also useful to keep things in perspective. This is nothing like 1968, when full scale urban riots exploded in many major cities, and eminent political leaders like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. But clearly, nearly 50 years after those tumultuous events and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there is work that remains to be done. There is massive mistrust on both sides of the barrier between "minority" communities and the police who serve and protect them. Step one is rebuilding that trust, which will require outreach from both sides. This will not be an easy or a short term fix. It would be helped along if there was a Martin Luther King equivalent figure with credibility and standing among minorities who could facilitate that dialogue, but there is no one of that towering stature around right now.

There are however, two figures who have played constructive and helpful roles for which they deserve much applause. One would be President Barack Obama, who has had to thread the needle between defending police departments while pointing out some of the circumstances that have created a series of troubling, racially-tinged incidents (and as a recent report indicates on who gets arrested here, Vermont is not exempt from this). If nothing else, there's something wrong when African-American males make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. population, but number more than 35 percent of the U.S. prison population.

The other would be Dallas Police Chief David Brown, an African-American who has spoken with calmness and dignity as his police department attempts to come to terms with the tragedy it has suffered. In this tense situation, another voice less reasoned could have easily poured more gas on the fire, but Brown's words and deeds have been just what a bleeding nation needed.

Bearing in mind the overwhelming majority of police officers are dedicated public servants who are motivated to serve for all the right reasons, it would be little short of astonishing if after a whole series of apparent over-reactions by some police officers who resorted to lethal force when video and other data would seem to indicate a delicate situation could have been defused another way, law enforcement officers across the board haven't been mandated to have some kind of training or professional development on how to handle situations that may start as a routine traffic stop, but could escalate rapidly. We hear about the ones that become tragic. They may be a small percentage of the total but it's hard to understand why even some police officers, in the absence of a clear and unmistakable direct threat to their personal safety, seem prone to deploy force. It's tough to second-guess individuals right there in the field, at the scene, who may be aware of other factors. But surely armed force was not necessary in all of these tragic incidents.

As a nation we have made great progress on the civil and equal rights front, and many of us may have been lulled into a false sense of complacency that this era had finally been put to rest in 2008 with the election of the first African-American president. Barack Obama has been a soothing presence during the all-to-often times when he has had to confront the lingering vestiges of racism. And given the mediocre qualifications of the two major party candidates vying to replace him, it's tempting to wish there were a way he could run for a third term. History will judge him far more favorably than he was treated by the contemporary crew of critics, a fact reflected in his rising popularity polls as he starts to look pretty good compared with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Speaking of Mrs. Clinton, in closing, while she dodged a bullet over the private email server she employed while Secretary of State, and this lapse in judgment doesn't disqualify her from office or even make her an inferior choice to the dreadful Mr. Trump, it's disheartening to review her long record of slipping and sliding around this question. Common sense alone should have compelled her to use the official email system, whatever its flaws may have been. Paranoia about "private" information leaking out is no excuse. It would have helped her cause if she had made that point clearer at the start of all of this, along with disclosing everything about the email setup from the start. The whole affair reinforces the existing perception that the rules are different for the Clintons and transparency is not at the heart of their value system. There's more to being president than being a policy wonk, which Mrs. Clinton seems to see as her strength. Legitimacy grows from credibility and openness. Mrs. Clinton's well-known distaste for the news media served her poorly in this case.


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