Remembering the 2016 killing of five Dallas police officers
July 7, 2021, is the five-year anniversary of Micah Xavier Johnson's attack on Dallas police officers and the larger world of nonviolent political change. On that fateful evening in 2016, Black Lives Matter protesters organized a rally in downtown Dallas to protest the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. The evening was a vigorous protest, where Dallas police officers maintained order and even allowed protesters to take selfies with them holding anti-police signs. As the rally came to an end, Johnson mounted his attack, shooting a dozen police officers and killing five of them: Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Sgt. Michael Smith, Officer Michael Krol, and Officer Patrick Zamarripa, all of the Dallas Police Department, and Officer Brent Thompson of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART).
The five-year anniversary is an important time to think about the difficult issues of race and politics. Johnson spoke "death as text" to take revenge for the killings of Sterling and Castile. He rushed an extended period of training to commit this terroristic act ahead of schedule after the recent events of Castile's death in Louisiana. Johnson was an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. His inspiration toward the largest attack on law enforcement since 9/11 came from a special rhetorical brand of afro-pessimism that needs more attention and reconsideration. Johnson visited social media sites such as the New Black Panthers and the African American Defense League, and his profile picture showed a black power symbol. Johnson told Dallas police chief David Brown he wanted "to kill white people" in revenge for what happened to black men.
Wikipedia currently lists Johnson's motive as "systemic racism." We need to understand how individuals are inspired to commit acts of terrorism and the interconnected networks of hate that nourish such activity.
Today we are confronted by the more recent violence of 2020 and 2021. Part of the serious problem of racial violence in the United States is the cynical political harvesting of black lives for presidential elections. In 2000, James Byrd's daughter narrated a political ad suggesting that Governor George Bush participated in the horrendous dragging death of her father. It is sadly an American tradition to cultivate racial animosity in major election years for the advantage of one political party. This is a dangerous game of political chicken.
Escaping from this spiral of cynicism requires a more careful reading of history. The notion of American "black power" primarily originates with Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael became exasperated with the nonviolent methods of leadership from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), led by James Farmer, Jr. In 1966, Carmichael co-opted James Meredith's "March Against Fear" in Mississippi to unleash his new more vindictive and aggressive stance against racism. His "black power" speech was fiery and memorable. It explained that the courthouses in Mississippi should be burned down in a new agenda of justice. The black fist was the new rhetorical standard to displace the more Christian overtones of prior Civil Rights groups. Young men like Ben Chaney, who witnessed his older brother James Chaney slaughtered in a CORE effort to register black voters in Freedom Summer 1964, joined groups like the Black Liberation Army to take a more militant stand against racism. "We were all moving away from the ideology of the Civil Rights Movement toward examining the philosophy of the Black Panther party and things like the writings and philosophy of Mao Tse-tung, Malcolm X, and others involved in the struggles of oppressed people," said Damu Hassan Shabaka, a friend of Ben who at that time was a member of the Defense League.
Stokely Carmichael was so angered by his new afro-pessimist convictions in 1966 that he later changed his name to Kwame Ture and left the United States for Ghana. In Ghana, he found not a path to pan-Africanism, but brutal authoritarianism that later put him in jail as a perceived threat to the dictator. The current cultural elite preference for reifying black militancy while hiding the achievements and empirical success of the rejected American Civil Rights Movement is a clear and present danger to blacks and whites alike today. James Meredith; James Farmer, Jr.; Martin Luther King; Medgar Evers; Bayard Rustin; John Lewis; and even Malcolm X all urged a milder path that was successfully refashioning social fabric torn by white supremacists. Today, nearly every American city sees the absurd graffiti of ACAB. This violent incitement imagines that killing police officers as Micah Johnson did on July 7, 2016, can right the wrongs of racism. Jaden X, perhaps better known as John Sullivan, went into the Capitol of Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, in hopes of instigating similar violent activity. He urged individuals inside the Capitol dome: "We need to burn this s--- down." He had the audacity to film the proceedings of his advocacy and record the killing of Ashli Babbitt. On April 2, Noah X, also known as Noah Green, launched another attack on the Capitol, killing a police officer and attempting to kill another. Green described himself as a follower of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Micah Xavier Johnson's terrorism on the streets of Dallas on July 7, 2016, was the result of a careful rhetorical curation leading him to believe that the most effective and proper thing he could do after the killings of Castile and Sterling was to go to the streets and kill as many police officers as possible. The growing number of police officers killed in the United States since 2016 is well known by public commentators, but we remain in a disingenuous cynical rhetorical relationship with the extensive violence encouraged by black power movements. The beloved community practiced by great racial leaders like John Lewis deserves the distinction of being recognized and encouraged as the practical and effective movement against racism. We should remember July 7, 2016, as an important stand by police officers to protect the American nonviolent premises of true and positive racial change.
Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of rhetoric at Southern Methodist University. His latest book — Debate as Global Pedagogy: Rwanda Rising — examines how debate overcomes the ongoing threat of genocide.
Image via Max Pixel.
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