NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE: As coincidence would have it, I happened to be in Austin, Texas, last week as yet another human hand grenade decided it was time to pull his own pin and start picking off as many white cops as he could. The sniper — a military-trained vet — began firing into the thick cluster of cops assigned to contain a Black Lives Matter rally, then winding down in Dallas. Before the shooter was suicide-droned into his next reincarnation, five officers would be killed and nine more people wounded. In the days that followed, law enforcement officers would be targeted for ambush in places such as Bristol, Tennessee, Ballwin, Missouri, and Valdosta, Georgia. For all the talk of unity and healing, we keep on killing. Last year, police officers throughout the United States shot and killed 990 people. Last year, 26 cops died from terminal lead poisoning administered by hostile parties. The numbers this year — even in the glare of nonstop media attention — continue to surge.
While in Austin, we visited Voodoo Doughnut, a gaudy, gimmicky place that sells glazed crullers carpet bombed with enough sugar-encrusted Fruit Loops to put a room of 30 8-year-olds into hypoglycemic shock. No Austin cops were present. They were otherwise preoccupied, keeping armies of out-of-town recreational drunks from the potential predations of homegrown street drunks for whom the magical municipal mantra of “keeping Austin weird” lost its sparkle long ago. Most striking in the moment were the large number and large size of signs obliterating the doughnut shop’s front window: No one carrying a concealed firearm — or openly carrying one — would be allowed to enter.
Austin, it turns out, happens to be the birthplace of the mass-shooter phenomenon, and these signs have something to do with that. On August 1, it will have been 50 years since Charles Whitman rode the University of Texas elevator all 27 stories to the top of the Tower and for 90 deliberate minutes sprayed the surrounding area with hot lead. By the time Whitman was killed, he’d shot 49 people, 16 fatally. The Texas legislature celebrated this anniversary last year by passing a law allowing concealed weapons to be carried into college classrooms and public buildings. It passed another allowing citizens to openly carry any firearm, including AR-15s. Fifty years ago, open-carry advocates contend, armed Austin citizens helped police pin Whitman down in the Tower, thus minimizing the carnage he could inflict. Even among Whitman’s survivors, this interpretation remains the subject of fierce debate.
Three University of Texas professors — two teach English, the other sociology — sued, charging they should have the option of maintaining gun-free classrooms. State Attorney General Ken Paxton made it clear he will smite them down. Government agencies that post the no-gun signs I saw at Voodoo Doughnut will face fines up to $10,500 a day, he threatened. That’s true for zoos, he said, and it’s doubly true for several city halls around the state — Austin’s included — where concern about angry wing nuts is hardly hypothetical.
The open-carry crowd has embraced NRA Guru Wayne LaPierre’s formulation that the “only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” infamously hatched in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. It’s well worth noting that as many as 30 individuals attended the Dallas Black Lives Matter rally wearing gas masks, camo pants, and bulletproof vests and armed with military-style assault rifles, including a handful of AR-15s. The question must be asked; did they help? The answer is emphatically not. Like everyone there, they scattered in panic. At the time, police believed there were multiple shooters. Many cops worried the open-carry protestors were accomplices in the carnage. Three were detained. One was arrested. In hindsight, their presence contributed only chaos and confusion. When afterward it was argued open-carry laws should not apply to protests, Dallas’s Open-Carry Czar C.J. Grisham retorted his 14-year-old daughter could tell the difference between good guys with guns and bad guys. “If you can’t ID a threat, you shouldn’t be wearing a uniform,” he spat.
In the current context, it should be clear to everyone cops need to reexamine when and how they use force — and the threat of force — to maintain what’s clearly a most precarious peace. The “good” news according to recent studies, if you can call it that, is that people of color are not more likely to be killed by cops than are whites. The bad news, however, is that they are far more likely to be stopped, frisked, searched, and detained. They’re also more likely to be on the receiving end of nonlethal police force. The people who cops kill tend to be carrying concealed weapons, tend to run away, and tend to be mentally ill.
The bad news is that cops — as a rule — don’t kill white people until they’ve crossed the ultimate shoot-me line and pulled a weapon. Blacks, on the other hand, are killed for far less threatening behavior. Although black males makes up only 6 percent of the population, they make up 40 percent of the unarmed population killed by cops. You do the math. Some cops, it needs to be said, show ridiculous restraint. I know one who confronted a deranged old man — furious he couldn’t collect insurance on the house he’d torched — pointing a .44 handgun at him. Somehow, he just knew the man’s gun — a cannon — couldn’t fire. Had it been, there would have been one dead old arsonist. Some cops — such as Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown — insist only an infinitesimal percentage of cop-citizen interactions lead to deadly conclusions. That’s true. But when only 11 cops have been convicted of felonious charges in the past 10 years for wrongful deaths — and only 65 charged — it’s also beside the point.
Meanwhile, next time I visit a doughnut shop in Austin, I’ll be ready to duck and cover.