It looked, at first, like a place we had been before. On the pavement outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La., two white police officers wrestle a large black man to the ground. Shots ring out, the cell-phone video jumps, another fraught summer begins. It was just after midnight on Tuesday, July 5. The footage went up that afternoon; protests began the same day. What followed, however, was the furthest thing from familiar. The events of the next 48 hours took the country to a place so new and uncertain that, after more than a week of talking about almost nothing else, it’s still not clear where we are.
But we do know the precise point of departure. The day after the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, at about 9 p.m. at the curb of the eastbound lane of Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights, Minn., a woman pressed an icon on her phone and began broadcasting live from the passenger seat of a white Oldsmobile. She panned to the driver’s seat, where Philando Castile was slumped and bleeding, and spoke with a controlled urgency and a careful courtesy that communicates, for one thing, a great deal about being African American at a traffic stop.
But that’s not all that’s being communicated. During the 10 minutes that Diamond Reynolds’ phone streamed to Facebook Live, the matter of police shootings lurched out of the realm of the abstract issue and into the realm of shared experience. It was a jarring shift, and an epochal one. In the 24 months since cell-phone footage of Eric Garner’s death on a Staten Island sidewalk was uploaded and then amplified by events in Ferguson, Mo., something profound occurred: Americans who might never themselves have had a problem with police came to appreciate the complaints of those who too often do. That lesson was discerned from shaky phone cameras, or through low-res cameras mounted atop storefronts or police dashboards—-sometimes clear, usually fuzzy, but always from the same vantage: outside, peering in.
No more. As Reynolds narrates the death of her boyfriend—-blood spreading across his T-shirt, the light in his eyes fading, the officer making his case through the open window, “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand open”—-the experience is, for the first time, a shared one. And when her guard finally comes down and Reynolds begins to wail and pray, the consolation offered by her 4-year-old daughter—-“It’s O.K., Mommy. It’s O.K., I’m right here with you”—-vaults any remaining barrier not only to empathy but identification.
By the next afternoon, the video had been watched 4 million times. Viewers were only beginning to register the implications when the bulletins began arriving from Dallas: five police officers guarding a demonstration against police shootings were assassinated by a black Army veteran apparently bent on the notion of racial vengeance.
“I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem,” President Obama informed the country at the July 12 memorial for the slain officers. It seemed a necessary assurance, at an occasion billed as an opportunity for reconciliation, or at least sensemaking. The stunned silence that first greeted the Dallas killings had been filled soon enough by accusations. Black Lives Matter, which emerged as a national force in Ferguson, was answered by hashtags like #BlueLivesMatter and #racewar. On a Sunday talk show, Rudy Giuliani called the slogan “racist” because, he said, its name implies that other lives do not. Antennae went up for copycat attacks, and a new wave of polarization surged into a campaign season already driven by it. “It’s as if the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed,” President Obama said, “perhaps even widened.”
Amid the Turmoil, no one was more compelling than David Brown. The implacable, bespectacled African-American police chief became the new face of the city. In 1963, the “city of hate” (so named for the rawness of its racism) was where the assassination of a President was followed, thanks to the incompetence of its police, by the televised assassination of his captured killer. Now that force not only protected the demonstrators marching against it but also, amid the ensuing calamity, displayed a calm that helped the country order its emotions.
It wasn’t the only department performing under pressure. Police officers in St. Paul, Minn., showed notable restraint, taking injuries at protests without inflicting any. In Baton Rouge, on the other hand, officers deployed armored vehicles and chased demonstrators as if Ferguson had never happened. Policing is largely a local matter, and the country remains a checkerboard. A year after Obama’s task force on policing recommended steps to improve relations with minority communities, only 15 of the country’s 18,000 departments have moved to adopt them.
Brown embodies the tensions coiled at the heart of things. Like many black cops, he is both wholly of his city’s African-American community and of the police force that many black residents say treats them unfairly–and yet they want to see more police because their neighborhoods can be so dangerous. Brown has suffered losses from both sides. A former partner was killed in the line of duty. A brother was murdered by drug dealers. Shortly after becoming chief, his own son, high on PCP, fatally shot two people, one of them a cop, before being killed by cops.
Asked how he bridged the two communities, Brown explained, “I’ve been black a long time, so it’s not much of a bridge for me.” It fell to another of the city’s African-American professionals, Dr. Brian Williams, to parse the contradictions of serving an establishment not yet rinsed of racism. A trauma surgeon at Parkland Memorial, Williams was haunted by his inability to save every officer that night. “I support you,” he said, of the police. “I will defend you, and I will care for you. That doesn’t mean that I do not fear you.”
If some of this came as a point of awakening to white Americans, the reality for black citizens was worn to the point of fraying. The Dallas shooter, Micah Johnson, was an outlier, tormented by failure in the military, but some say they knew where he was coming from. Schoolchildren are not usually taught this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but much of the urgency behind the civil rights movement was provided by militants who argued that the only effective reply to state violence was what many blacks say they saw in Dallas: retaliation.
“I have two words for you: black rage,” said Oyinka Green, 47, an activist with the Dallas Action Coalition, which helped organize the July 7 march. “Look up the term. It’s from the 1970s. Anger, frustration–we’re all feeling it. Helplessness.”
Much has changed since the days when black militancy rose to challenge a rigid, racist power structure. Today the list of African-American leaders runs from U.S. President to Attorney General to editor of the New York Times. But that’s another way of saying that the next step, a “national conversation” about race, is not really about who’s in charge. It has to be about institutions, procedures and habits put in place before any of us were born. It will be about squaring accounts with people brought to the continent in chains, nominally emancipated 153 years ago and long hobbled by official decrees, including federal lending laws in the boom years after World War II that confined African Americans to urban centers, where the most visible representatives of the state are uniformed officers enforcing laws against drugs, and the violence that goes with them.
“We have to talk about it all at the same time, because the same neighborhoods with the highest rates of violence have the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, substandard housing and lack of education,” says Edward Flynn, Milwaukee’s chief of police. “We have been delegating America’s social problems to the police.” Obama concurred, echoing Brown: “We ask the police to do too much, and we ask too little of ourselves.”
Thankfully, one thing they are no longer asked to do is control information. A few years ago, if a reporter got a call from a citizen saying the cops had killed her son, it was going to come down to her word against the police. Smartphone cameras and the Internet have plucked both the reporter and the cops from the equation and placed it directly before the public. Polls still show that African Americans see race relations as more dire than white people do. “It’s because they don’t live in same world with us,” says Damon Carter, 40, a welder in Cleveland, days before the Republicans will convene in his city. “Until they get a brother-in-law or something, then they say, ‘Now I get it! I get it!'”
But more may be getting it. This year 61% of Americans said more needed to be done to assure racial equality, a figure that has been growing steadily since the consciousness-raising summer of 2014. Among whites, in another sign of hope, it’s young people who express the greatest concern. Whites routinely march with Black Lives Matter; in Minnesota, they accounted for most of the protesters.
“The best thing we can do is to love and support each other. We should all give cops a hug and stand with them,” says Clarissa Pyles, 23, who marched for the first time in Dallas. “It can’t be ‘blue lives matter’ or ‘black lives matter.’ You can support both at the same time. And the more we support each other, the more we understand each other.”
It can come in a sudden surge. A few hours before Diamond Reynolds reached for her phone, the mother of Alton Sterling’s son stepped before microphones in Baton Rouge. It was still a place we’d been before, a news conference for the outraged and bereft, survivors bravely struggling for composure. But then the camera pulls back to bring into the frame the dead man’s 15-year-old son, Cameron. He had thrown an arm around his mother’s shoulder in a manly show of support but was now trying to hide his own tears by tugging up the collar of his shirt. Shuddering with sobs, the son turns and falls into the arms of the men standing behind him, wailing for his daddy. It is almost unbearable.
“At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others,” George W. Bush, the former President and a Dallas resident, said at the memorial service, with uncommon eloquence. Obama made the same essential point, with his own eloquence. And then there was Brown, explaining that Stevie Wonder would do his talking for him, before reciting 27 lines of lyrics from the powerful 1976 song “As.” In a room of mostly cops and African Americans, he paused just once to invite applause, slowing to emphasize the line “Until the day that you are me and I am you.” The applause came.
–With reporting by JAY NEWTON-SMALL/DALLAS; MAYA RHODAN/WASHINGTON; and JOSH SANBURN/FALCON HEIGHTS, MINN.
This appears in the July 25, 2016 issue of TIME.
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