By the time Dallas police blew up 25-year-old Micha Xavier Johnson with a robot that packed a remote-controlled bomb on Friday morning, five police officers were dead and seven more were wounded. Two civilians were injured as well.
The black sniper’s stated intention was to take as many white cops with him as he could. Yet even in death, he had one more destructive round in the chamber.
At least for a time, Johnson was able to silence Diamond Reynolds, an African-American woman of extraordinary poise and courage who, from the side of her dying boyfriend, had just used her smart phone to open a live, real-time window on black America’s relationship with law enforcement.
“Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir,” the Minnesota woman said while we watched Philando Castile breathe his last. Her 4-year-old daughter was in the back seat.
We all needed to be in that car, too, however painful we found the experience. But in a selfish and pointless search for vengeance, Johnson forced us to look elsewhere.
The week’s cruelty had grown day by day. On Wednesday, we woke to a YouTube video of a white police officer in Baton Rouge, La., pressing his service pistol to the chest of a red-shirted Alton Sterling. You felt the ‘pops’ that killed him.
That night, Michael Thurmond hosted a DeKalb County meeting that was conceived as a local attempt at peace-making between the followers of Hillary Clinton and those of Bernie Sanders. Instead, the Baton Rouge shooting took over the conversation.
Thurmond still faces a Republican opponent, but won the Democratic primary in May and is the heavy favorite to become CEO of DeKalb County in November. So he speaks well of police. He understands the challenge of the “nihilism” – his words, not mine – posed by neighborhoods filled with unemployed black youth. Yet even he wasn’t prepared on Wednesday night.
“I was taken aback by the pain that was in the room. There was a palpable sense of outrage,” he said.
I was not in the audience. So on Thursday, I checked in with George Chidi, who had been there. Chidi, an African-American, is one of eight DeKalb County Commission candidates running in a special election for Stan Watson’s vacated seat.
But the conversation had already changed again. An officer in Falcon Heights, Minn., had pulled a car over for a broken tail light. Moments later, Diamond Reynolds — we didn’t know her name at the time – activated her Facebook Live app.
The officer told her to keep her hands where he could see them. “I will, sir, no worries. I will,”
And in one of those hands, she kept her phone, still recording.
Chidi was astounded by the clear-headed woman.
For the unplugged, an explanation is required. We all know that phones now record digital video. But phones can be confiscated. Video can be erased. The livestream app permitted Reynolds to immediately broadcast her video to Facebook friends. It gave that video an immediate and permanent storage home beyond the reach of law enforcement.
The act was an extremely political one.
“Her boyfriend was dying, and the woman in the car had the presence of mind to pull out a phone and livestream,” Chidi said. “Under other circumstances, that would not be normal. But it’s normal now.
“The black community realizes they have a role to play in solving the problem. That there’s a problem, it is real and it has to be solved. This was an act of democracy,” the candidate said. “It was a profound act of democracy to put aside your own fear, your own heartbreak, to hold a camera in your hand. Because capturing that, to add to the body of evidence, was more important than your own grief. That is where we are.”
And that is the conversation that Micah Johnson changed with a rifle only a few hours later. We would wake up Friday morning to watch David Brown, African-American chief of the Dallas police force mourn his fallen comrades — and protest that his officers were acting as guardians, not predators.
But perhaps Reynolds held the stage long enough to put enough of us in that car with her. Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, a Democrat, was prompted to an immediate confession. “Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?” he asked. “I don’t think it would have.”
But it was the Republican reaction that bore watching.
Before Dallas, on his Facebook page, state Rep. Buzz Brockway of Lawrenceville acknowledged that many see “that our justice system treats African-Americans badly, even sometimes criminally.”
Before Dallas, Patrick Milsaps, an Albany, Ga., entertainment attorney who headed up Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign for president, sent this out via Twitter: “I’m a white. I support law enforcement. But folks, we witnessed two executions in the past 48 hours on social media. #IntellectualHonesty”
After Dallas, a statement of reaction from the Republican National Committee acknowledged that the events in Texas, Louisiana and Minnesota were a situation to be addressed as a whole. “We must seek understanding with one another, and work as one nation to prevail over injustice in all its forms,” said Reince Priebus, RNC chairman.
In his Friday statements, even Republican presidential presumptive Donald Trump was restrained, acknowledging the “senseless, tragic deaths” in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights as he mourned the dead officers in Dallas.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and Georgia congressman, also offered evidence of a political reaction that might veer away from the familiar path.
“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this. If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk,” he said.
Gingrich made his remarks on Facebook Live, the same app that Diamond Reynolds used in her bloodied car.
So after you mourn the dead in Texas, Louisiana and Minnesota, pass over the shooter in Dallas and give a thought to her. Everything that Micha Johnson wasn’t — brave, thoughtful and moral — Diamond Reynolds was. And is.