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Struggling for common ground, nation debates racial fracture

Long after her two sons were in bed, Shanel Berry kept vigil in front of the television at her home in Waterloo, Iowa, watching the week's horror unfurl and obsessing over a single question: Was the gunman who killed five Dallas police officers black?

"I just thought, 'Please, please don't let him be black,' " because if he was, she worried that police shootings of black men could become easy to justify.

Berry, an elementary-school teacher, said she hurt for the officers and their families. But when the gunman was identified and his photo flashed on the screen, she sank even lower.

"I told my boys, 'Now, this will make it even harder.' "

Fifteen hundred miles away, David Moody, a retired Las Vegas police officer, woke Friday morning to fellow officers writing messages of anger and condolence on their Facebook pages, posting black-clad badges in solidarity with the Dallas Police Department. He had seethed at what he called the anti-police sentiment of protests over the deaths of two black men fatally shot by the police in Louisiana and Minnesota. And now this.

"The atmosphere that's out there right now," Moody said. "We don't get up in the morning thinking how can we violate somebody's rights today, how can we pick on this type of person. Every guy I know that's out there working is getting up every day and thinking he's going to make a difference."

Anger and anguish

Even as political leaders, protesters and law enforcement officials struggled to find common ground and lit candles of shared grief, there was an inescapable fear that the United States was being pulled farther apart in its anger and anguish over back-to-back fatal shootings by police officers followed by a sniper attack by a military veteran who said he wanted to kill white police officers.

Just days after the United States celebrated its 240th birthday, people in interviews across the country said that the nation increasingly felt mired in bloodshed and blame, and that despite pleas for compassion and unity, it was fracturing along racial and ideological lines into angry camps of liberals against conservatives, Black Lives Matter against Blue Lives Matter, protesters against the police. Whose side were you on? Which victims did you mourn?

In a televised interview, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations blamed President Barack Obama for waging a "war on cops." On social media, others confronted the discrepancies in the everyday lives of black and white Americans, hoping understanding would lead to conversations and action.

Along the Las Vegas Strip, a sunbaked cross-section of races, backgrounds and political views, tourists and workers said the relentless parade of violence during the week had left them mostly in shock and disbelief. They worried that more would follow.

Police departments across the country took precautions, ordering officers to double up in their patrol cruisers and to work in pairs or teams. Civilians were also on guard. Trey Jemmott, an incoming freshman at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said his mother warned him to be careful before he left for the gym the other night.

"She always told me, being an African-American, you already have strikes against you," he said. "I just feel like something's got to change. We thought we were over this."

Healing or division?

At an outdoor food stand on the Strip, three co-workers — black, white and Asian — debated whether the bloodshed would lead to healing or deeper divisions as they talked about their own experiences with police.

Martin Clemons, 28, said he and some of his black friends had been frisked for jaywalking across the Strip. Zach Luciano, 23, who is white, said he had never been stopped or had a negative run-in with law enforcement, and had considered becoming a police officer.

"There's more good cops than bad cops," Luciano said. "I wanted to be one of those good ones."

What the three co-workers shared was a grim view that the country's divides would not heal anytime soon.

"It's sad, but this is what the world's coming to," Luciano said.

In New York, Monifa Bandele has spent the past 17 years working to get citizens to video record police interactions, yet as the Facebook Live recording of Philando Castile's shooting in Minnesota coursed across social media Wednesday night, she could not bring herself to watch.

"I literally thought I would have a stroke. I could feel my blood pressure going up," said Bandele, 45, a Brooklyn native. "I work day and night to end police brutality, and no matter how much responsibility I felt, I just couldn't do it."

Bandele and her husband, Lumumba, helped found Copwatch after the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo in a hail of bullets fired by New York City police officers who mistook a wallet in his hand for a gun. She is frequently called upon to comment on police killings, so watching these videos is part of her work.

The night before the Castile video posted, Bandele had to watch the recording of a police officer in Baton Rouge, La., shooting Alton Sterling as he lay pinned to the ground. But after what has felt like a constant cycle of images of police killings of black Americans, the appearance of the Minnesota video proved too much.

"It was just a breaking. I have spoken to people who are broken, and they just can't take any more," Bandele said. "Those images visit me at night. The impact is emotional and it is physical."

Instead of watching the new video, she rushed upstairs to try to take the phones of her two teenage daughters before they could see it. But her oldest, Naima, 17, met her on the stairs, distraught, her eyes filled with tears. Bandele had to take off from work Friday to comfort her girls.

On the lookout

Moody, the retired Las Vegas officer who also is the president of the Las Vegas Fraternal Order of Police, represents the reverse side of that vigilance. He spent much of his career patrolling the city on motorcycle, he said, and now when he comes across a traffic stop or a police cruiser flashing its lights, he pauses to watch out for the officers.

"You need citizens out there doing this kind of stuff," Moody said, "because you never know what's going to happen."

Berry, the teacher in Iowa, said she worked hard to raise her two boys, Dallas, 15, and Amari, 11, to make a good impression. Square your shoulders, she has always told them, look people in the eyes when they talk to you, and stand up for what is right. But that advice comes with a painful exception: Do none of these things if stopped by the police.

"That is the hurting part," said Berry, 37. "Because that is the part that Dallas doesn't quite get. 'Why are you telling me to comply if I am not doing anything wrong?' I am trying to teach them to be men and stand up for themselves, but at the same time I am telling them to back down and not be who they are."

This past week has only made that tightrope walk all the more difficult, trying to balance protecting her children's innocence with preparing them for what feels like an eventuality. She sat down with her sons to watch the news coverage of the shootings and said she struggled with how to simultaneously caution her boys and comfort them.

Dallas is about to turn 16, that age when the chests of teenage boys swell with bravado, when they obtain that quintessential American rite of passage — the driver's license.

"This is something we should be celebrating," Berry said, "but I am terrified."

Struggling for common ground, nation debates racial fracture 07/09/16 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2016 11:55pm]
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