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When Words Fail Us

Protesters link arms as they block an intersection in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta during a march against the recent police shootings of African Americans on Monday, July 11, 2016.

Words fail.

After last week’s absolute horror of two black men being shot by police in separate incidents, the aftermath of both recorded in all-too-real and all-too-graphic cell phone videos, what more is there to say?

Alton Sterling, 37, died in the early morning hours of July 5 after police shot and killed him outside a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, convenience store. An onlooker captured the incident on video.

The next day, another black man, Philando Castile, 32, was fatally shot in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, by an officer who stopped him for driving with a busted taillight. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, captured the moments immediately after the shooting in an excruciating video that circled the globe on social media.

Simply expressing anger and outrage feels too puny for the magnitude of what happened. Perhaps that’s why some angry people have taken to the streets to express themselves in nonviolent, but determined protests.

Given the disproportionate numbers of fatal police shootings of black men across the nation in recent years, and the nonchalant attitude of many public officials in response to this violence, it’s easy to understand why. Clearly, many Americans are mad as hell and fed up with talking about a problem that seems never-ending. Such anger needs expression, and confrontational street protests provide the outlet.

Well, they did until a peaceful protest last Thursday in Dallas turned violent. According to a New York Times report, five police officers died and seven other officers and two civilians were wounded when a man identified as Micah Johnson, 25, fired on them as the protest march wound to its conclusion. The dead officers were identified as Brent Thompson of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Dallas Police Department officers Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith.

Now, the whole world is talking about the United States, spilling even more words that are not kind to or affirming of our national self-image. For example, a Chinese website made sure to highlight the imagery and story of U.S. police conflict, complete with reader comments that pointed out the hypocrisy of our nation’s leaders preaching democracy abroad while practicing racism at home. That theme was repeated by The Telegraph, a serious British publication:

Whatever the motives behind this madness, race is back at the top of the agenda in America. The country’s first black president may be in Poland, at a Nato summit designed to stamp on Russian aggression, but he could soon need to return to put out the flames in his own country. That is not the progress he promised. … America prides itself on being an ongoing experiment in democracy that guarantees the rights of all. Yet racism remains a fact of everyday life.

As fate would have it, President Barack Obama was out of the country when the shootings occurred, putting him—and the nation—on an uncomfortable stage as he discussed our shameful inability to deal with race.

“[W]hat’s clear is that these fatal shootings are not isolated incidents,” President Obama said in a statement on the deaths of Sterling and Castile. “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.”

Not to be outdone, some Republican leaders not usually noted for sensitive or understanding comments about race in America found sympathetic words in the wake of the tragedies.  For example, House Speaker Paul Ryan took to the floor to praise Black Lives Matter activists: “The values that brought those protesters to the streets in Dallas, the values that brought those protesters to the streets in Washington last night—respect, decency, compassion, humanity. … If we lose these fundamental things, what’s left?”

So many words. Yet moments like this scream for something more substantial.

My Center for American Progress colleagues Danyelle Solomon, Director of Progress 2050, and Todd Cox, Director of Criminal Justice Policy, offer reasonable starting points for policymakers to consider and act upon. In a recent opinion article, they suggest “increasing the use of special prosecutors in police misconduct investigations; implementing improved and robust law enforcement training, including de-escalation and implicit bias; and mandating data collection on police misconduct and fatalities and injuries involving the police to ensure transparency.”

Diamond Reynolds understands the need for reform, perhaps better than most of us. She filmed her boyfriend’s last moments and couldn’t believe what she was witnessing. In the wake of his death, she has grown aware and resolute about what must happen to heal this country.

“I was thinking about our rights, right there at that very second,” she said in an interview with the BBC. “And, now, I’m left to sit here and think ‘Why me? Why us? Why his family? Why did this police officer do this? Why can’t these laws change? Why can’t we get justice? Why why why why why?”

In our national effort to comprehend, to make sense of racial insanity and to move beyond the grief that a nation shares with Reynolds and all of last week’s shooting victims, practical policy reforms are needed—not merely words that so soon evaporate in the air.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.