Skip to main content

At the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, Phil Ochs sang the chorus to his new Ballad of Medgar Evers:

dallas shooting

After Dallas, Too Many Empty Words Were Said—Tom Hall

Too many martyrs and too many dead;
Too many lies, too many empty words were said.
Too many times for too many angry men
Oh, let it never be again.

In 1963 the nation was trying to come to grips, and decide how to deal with, the constant stream of dead black men, women and children. As the song reminds us, Medgar Evers was shot in the back by a coward hiding in night’s darkness. Today, black men, women and children are more often gunned down in broad daylight by men who shoot while proudly wearing the uniform of government worker.

Every time we learn of another police killing of a black person, too many empty words are said. Promises, with no action, no change, no acknowledgement that the killing is wrong.

And every time we learn of another police killing of a black person, too many empty words are said. Promises, with no action, no change, no acknowledgement that the killing is wrong.

What do we know about the Dallas shooting incident, last Thursday night? Without opinion about what they mean, we can review just the facts: A gunman killed five people, and wounded nine more. Of the 14 killed and wounded, 12 were police officers.

The gunman was a poor black man, trained by the government to kill, and sentenced to nine months of duty in one of our publicly sanctioned killing fields, Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, he exhibited psychological problems—a common reaction of young Americans sent to foreign lands for the purpose of imposing colonial rule on “inferior” people. And like other soldiers who exhibit adverse psychological reactions to life and work in an occupation army, when he was shipped home, he was not diagnosed or treated for his problems. Having served his time and become useless to the government, he was discarded to fend for himself.

We know as well that he was armed. Our society encourages everyone, including those with identified psychological problems, to own guns, and to believe that using a gun is an appropriate first response to just about any problem or provocation. And we know that he was provoked by the now routine killing of other black men by police officers—about 1,000 in 2015.

Two of those killings occurred in the week before he acted. Although the facts remain unclear, both killings by police appeared to be of men who were legally armed. One, arguably, may have been confrontational with arresting officers. But the videos show that he was under control by two policemen, and that his gun remained in his pocket while he was confronted, controlled, and then shot to death.

The other was shot after he told a traffic officer that he had a gun in the car, and a permit to carry the gun. The officer will claim that the man moved his hands out of sight after the officer told him to keep them in sight, and thereby posed an unacceptable risk to the officer. The officer’s body camera will provide important information, unless we are told that he wasn’t wearing one, or that it “malfunctioned”.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

We also know that the Dallas shooter was not acting in response to any immediate provocation by Dallas police or politicians. Dallas police are leaders in progressive policing, even as they are followers in police pay—far lower in both pay and benefits (health care, etc.) than other Texas police, and the police in suburbs surrounding Dallas. Dallas police have been developing tactics to reduce conflict and to work better with the taxpayers and residents they serve. They were not killed by someone they had provoked.

The stories of Dallas police officers rushing toward the sniper, and forming body shields to protect marchers in the turmoil, contrast markedly with the tales of how our soldiers deal with civilians under the thumbs of our occupying armies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other “beneficiaries” of our military occupation. These news stories remind us of the differences that should exist between military and police forces. Rhidian Brook’s short novel, The Aftermath, set in Germany during the post-WW-II occupation reminds us that these differences have been known, and ignored, long before our recent militarization of police departments.

Perhaps the worst of what we know of the Dallas incident is what happened after the sniper was cornered and contained. Dallas police tell us that the shooter was trapped in a corner of a parking garage. He was not accessible to police snipers, and thus, was also not in a position from which he could continue shooting at other people.

The shooter was apparently interested in talking to people about his actions. The police initially said that they “negotiated” with him for three hours. He provided information about his motivation and background. They report that he maintained the position that he wanted to kill white police officers, and that he was motivated by anger at the recent police killing of other black men.

After ensuring that the shooter was contained in a position from which he could neither escape nor inflict any further harm, the Dallas police decided that they needed to kill, rather than capture the shooter. As he was contained, they could have waited him out. There is no pretense that he was carrying food or water, or had a secret escape route. There is no pretense that the police considered just waiting until he tired, or became incapacitated by thirst, or that they thought about trying to infuse him with the gas that dentists use to put their patients to sleep.

Something the shooter told the police convinced them that it was imperative that he not be allowed to “lawyer up;” not be allowed to face criminal charges in a trial that would reveal his background, his lack of treatment options at the V.A. or elsewhere in “free market” Texas. As progressive as they may be, the Dallas police knew that this shooter was one who should not be allowed to speak out through the press or legal proceedings. Perhaps those three hours of “negotiation” disclosed that the shooter was articulate, passionate, and motivated, and might make a sympathetic witness to the plight of black men, particularly in the Tea Bag Republic of Texas.

It doesn’t matter how articulate, passionate, motivated or sympathetic the shooter presented as. The fact that black people are routinely killed by police, 53 years after Phil Ochs sang for an end of such deaths, is not justification for random targeting of police, particularly in a department that leads the nation in progressive policing.

But the police decision to conduct an extra-judicial execution of a man accused of (but never charged with) murdering police officers is simply a continuation of the pattern that, according to the police version of his statements, drove him to this crime.

tom hall

The pattern has been with us since Reconstruction, when, as one Tennessee politician noted, “Nigger life’s cheap now”. Once white people could no longer own black people, black people lost whatever intrinsic value they had had. They could be used as scapegoats for white rapists. They could be used as “examples” to keep workers of any color from trying to organize, or to speak up against unjust laws or political corruption. Or they could be used simply for target practice.

The Civil Rights Movement showed us that many of the men who slunk around in bedsheets after dark slunk around in police uniforms during the day. And until very recently, the LAPD’s slang code for black on black killings, that didn’t need to be investigated was “NHI” (“No Humans Involved”).

Whether it is lack of training, overt racism, or calculated political decision making, until the killing of black people becomes as important to society as the killing of white people, until killing a black person becomes as prosecutable as killing a white person, even by a shooter dressed as a cop, Phil Och’s 53-year-old lament, and the 153-year-old promise of the Emancipation Proclamation will continue the pattern of “too many empty words were said.”

Tom Hall

Tom Hall