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What’s behind the shootings in Dallas, Minnesota, Louisiana: U of T experts

Police and protesters in Dallas on July 7, 2016, after one person is arrested. Photo by: Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty Images

Police and protesters in Dallas on July 7, 2016, after one person is arrested. Photo by: Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty Images

Just hours after U.S. President Barack Obama addressed police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana he faced cameras again – this time to address the killings of five police officers at a Dallas rally to protest police violence.

The Dallas shootings, which ended with one suspect dead, three in custody and seven people wounded, were “a vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement,” Obama told reporters. Just a few hours earlier, he had taken the unusual step of posting on social media about the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota,  saying Americans should be “deeply troubled” by their deaths.

“We’ve seen such tragedies far too many times,” Obama wote. “They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve.”

U of T News is asking experts from a wide range of disciplines for their insights into these events. We begin with Peter Loewen, associate professor of political science and director of the Centre for the Study of the United States at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

On the political and social aftermath of the shootings in Dallas:
I think that the obvious thing is that it’s not helpful in any sense and it really turns up the temperature quite a bit. The particular tragedy about the Dallas shooting last night – apart from the general tragedy of people being murdered and the tragedy of both the murder in Baton Rouge and the murder in St. Paul – the real tragedy of the case last night is that the Dallas police department has one of the more exemplary records in the United States – there’s a relatively low murder rate in Dallas. I’m not saying it’s an objectively good record but in relative sense it’s a good record. If any city was going to act as something of a model for better relations between the black community and police departments, it’s Dallas.

It makes this being potentially about Black Lives Matter versus the police which it isn’t – these murders were committed essentially by terrorists.

What we have to watch for in the next couple days is how politicians respond to this, how police respond to it and how people within the Black Lives Matter movement and the larger civil rights movement respond to it as well.

On what this means for the Black Lives Matter movement and its opposition:
I think it’s important that we say the following: Black Lives Matter is one manifestation and one arm of modern civil rights movement in the United States. They don’t represent every African American in the United States and we shouldn’t think that they do… it’s not to discredit them at all but it is to say that we have to move the conversation past your opinion on Black Lives Matter to the substance of it.

Their large point is that African Americans, particularly African American men are more likely to be brutalized by the police and are more likely to be killed by the police – and the killing is the most tragic manifestation of it but what they’re concerned about equally is the day to day harassment and incivility that black people in the United States face from police that white people don’t face.

The larger problem is that things like the shooting last night in Dallas which are tragic and really speak to a deep rage and anger in America right now can also obscure our discussion about those facts.

On how the shootings will fuel campaign politics between Donald Trump Hillary Clinton:
Who knows how Trump in his world is going to view this – I can imagine it’s going to give him reason to double down on whatever his strange beliefs are of how we deal with issues like this. The man is increasingly just disconnected with any sense of what government does and what policy is or how you advance the issue of civil rights. He literally has no thoughts on this, is my intuition.

For Clinton, it’s difficult. The issue is that Clinton has a relatively tense relationship with the black civil rights movement – at least parts of it – and this is not going to make this easier for her. But I hope that she – and many Democrats and Republicans – will show the kind of leadership that Barack Obama showed last night by identifying this for exactly what it is. Basically a vicious attack – it’s a form of terrorism and it’s not acceptable and on one really who’s credible in the mainstream thinks it’s acceptable.

On whether or not the events in Dallas were inevitable: 
No, I think people make choices and no choices are inevitable. To say it’s inevitable is to say that the people who made the decision to do those things didn’t have agency. People make choices.

On the impact of this week’s events on Canadians and race relations here:
The experience of black Canadians is not experience of white Canadians in their interactions with police – the experience of aboriginal Canadians is not on average the same experience as white Canadians with the police.

I would say that the experience of blacks in the United States vis-à-vis the police is worse than the experience of blacks in Canada vis-à-vis the police but that doesn’t really matter if in either place the experience is unequal between blacks and whites – and it is, in both countries.

It’s difficult for us in Canada, particularly those of us who are not black Canadians, to understand how deeply problematic the relationship is between police forces and black Americans. It’s a day-to-day problem, not a once-in-your-life problem if you’re a black American.

On gun control in the United States:
The debate around gun control in the United States is unhinged from reality on both sides – there are 300 million or more handguns available in the United States. What law do you think you’re going to pass that will erase the already huge stockpile of firearms that exists in that country that’s somehow going to control the flow of them?

The issue isn’t around mass shootings – those are tragic and seem frequent but the issue is around the day-to-day use of guns and violence – both lethal and non-lethal. I just don’t know what a policy framework would be that would address that to the point of making America look like other countries.

It’s seemingly rational behaviour – people want control over their lives and one way of doing that is obtaining a firearm. They want to feel like they have control.