A Grain Of Saul: As Violence Worsens, Americans Actually Seem To Be Coming Together

Recent tragedies have left everyone hurting and looking for answers.

Let me start by saying that I was wrong. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Americans are far less divided in their opinions than people may think. In fact, Americans have large points of consensus on immigration, gun control, fighting ISIS, campaign finance reform and even healthcare. But one thing that has kept the country divided is the recent violence between minority communities and police. The shooting of five Dallas police officers by a former soldier, who said he wanted to kill white cops, exemplifies the bubbling over of tensions that many have been predicting for months. But it also illustrates the kind of nuance and complexity of these issues that are finally being discussed.

For starters, I was surprised to learn in the wake of the Dallas shootings that the sniper was actually an ex-military African American man. If someone had asked me to profile the sniper I would have imagined a disenfranchised caucasian twenty something with minimal firearm training but simple access to guns in a state like Texas. My own prejudices didn't allow me to think it'd be a military veteran opening fire on police; to me, those men in uniform are of the same kin.

Even worse, though, is that I immediately made assumptions about the Dallas Police Department, their makeup, and what their history was. To my surprise, I found out that the chief of the Dallas Police Department, David Brown, was black. And that he had actually been on all sides of this sort of tragedy. His son was killed by police after shooting a man and another officer when Brown was only seven weeks into his new job as police chief. 

It was the third time Brown had lost someone close to him because of violence, after his partner was killed on the job in 1988 and his younger brother was killed by drug dealers in 1991. 

While thousands of Dallas citizens came out to protest, it was clear they were there for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling rather than the state of affairs in their home city. It turns out chief Brown helped lead initiatives that dropped complaints of excessive force against the police department by 64 percent since 2009. Brown even spoke about those policies at an event on police conduct that the White House hosted earlier this year.

When news of Castile's shooting came, so quickly after Sterling's, I took to Facebook like many of my liberal friends to express my sorrow and grief and anger at yet another national story, with video to add to the heartbreak, of a black man being killed by police.  

In my status I accused the officers of being another example of "trigger-happy white cops." As it turns out, the officer who killed Castile was Latino and the two who were involved in the killing of Sterling are yet to be identified. Like many of my liberal friends, I asked "where the NRA was" for Castile, a legal firearm owner, and then, today, discovered a brilliant African American man who hosts a YouTube show for the NRA and frequently discusses the relationship between gun ownership and the black community. 

The tragic irony of it all is almost too much to bear: an African American man in uniform kills five other innocent men in uniform to protest the unjust killings of African-American men at the hands of white police officers. He does it in a city headed by an African American police chief who was implementing reforms that had dramatically reduced excessive force over the last five years, and he does it after two incidents in which the only cop involved whose race we know for sure is Latino. And then Americans all start turning on each other trying to pick sides.

As you can tell, the web of this tragedy, so intertwined and entangled, is proof that these communities — our communities — are actually more closely knit and overlapped than we may think on first glance.

Just like some of my own assumptions about this recent spate of violence were wrong, there were also plenty of big name conservatives who re-thought their stance in the wake of this tragedy. 

In case you missed it, two prominent pro-cop Republicans took a major change in tone when discussing the most recent shootings. First, it was Newt Gingrich making an uncharacteristically generous comment about life as an African American.

"It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this," Gingrich said on Facebook. "If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don't understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk."

Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio made similar comments

"Those of us that are not African American will never fully understand the experience of being black in America, but we should all understand why our fellow Americans in the black community are angry at the images of an African American man, with no criminal record, who was pulled over for a busted taillight, slumped in his car seat and dying while his 4-year-old daughter watches from the back seat," Rubio said in a statement. "The fact is that there are communities in America where black families tell us they are fearful of interacting with local law enforcement. How they feel is a reality that we cannot and should not ignore."

Just days after their comments, Vox — one of the more liberal sites online — published an essay from the anonymous wife of a police officer explaining how tired she was of telling her other liberal friends that her husband isn't a monster. Just like that, all of the sudden, it seemed like a real consensus and understanding was forming between two sides who have grown tired of hating and hurting each other. 

Even some of my most vehement pro-cop friends, after watching the videos of these shootings online, conceded they were "bad shots" or "excessive" or "just completely disgusting." They saw the same thing I saw: inadequately trained cops making a bad situation worse.  

That kind of mutual feeling of despair came to a dramatic head during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas when a group of mainly white anti-protestors and mainly African American Black Lives Matter protesters joined together to hug and talk to each other. In a scene that usually ends in violence or screaming matches, the sides joining together in a unified protest and shed tears as they met each other.

These moments, statements, and feelings are all part of one of the few redeeming things happening in the midst of these awful headlines: people are coming together. Whether they are tired of fighting or being victims of violence or watching horrifying videos, it doesn't matter. 

It matters that protests are turning to hugs. It matters that police departments like Dallas are dramatically improving the way their communities feel about them. It matters that people like me or Marco Rubio or Newt Gingrich or my pro-cop friends on Facebook can take a breath and admit they were wrong while still standing by the values and views they believe to be good and true. At the end of the day, almost all of us want the same thing: more peace and safety. 

Isaac Saul is a reporter for A Plus and author of his weekly column "A Grain of Saul." You can follow him on Twitter