Friday, July 15, 2016

Many have the wrong image of Dallas

For the first, oh, 30 years of my adult life I bought into the image of Dallas as a cauldron of right-wing paranoia and violence.

That image was cemented with the assassination of John Kennedy when I was a high school freshman, but it had an older and broader basis.

It was part of the city’s DNA.

Dallas was less than 20 years old in July, 1860, when a fire started in a popular drug store and spread to destroy most the downtown of the fledgling city.

Fires also raged in nearby Denton and Pilot Point.

Cooler heads attributed the fires to new-fangled phosphorous matches imported from the north, which probably flashed spontaneously in the 110-degree heat.

But others, including the young editor of the Dallas Herald, decided it was a slave rebellion urged on by abolitionist preachers who plotted  "to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas.”

At least 30 victims, black and white, and possibly as many as 100 were lynched or otherwise killed in the panic that ensued.

By the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, Dallas was a hotbed of extremism as depicted in the book “Dallas 1963” by former Express-News reporter Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis.

A month before President Kennedy’s fateful visit, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was surrounded by hecklers after giving a speech in Dallas.

A woman hit him on the head with a sign and a man spat on him.

On the day Kennedy arrived in Dallas, the News ran a full-page ad with a black border that basically accused the president of being a Communist sympathizer.

Its signature was a pseudonym, but its funders turned out to include Nelson Bunker Hunt and H.R. “Bum” Bright, who would become owner of the Dallas Cowboys.

And the newspaper’s editor approved the ad.

All these things and more would build Dallas’ national image as a city of hatred.

But in the past decade, I’ve found myself stunning friends up North when they made comments about how conservative Texas and particularly Dallas are.

Are you aware, I would ask them, that Dallas elected a black district attorney who made it his cause to discover and overturn wrongful convictions?

Or that Dallas has a Latina lesbian sheriff who has been re-elected twice?

These facts had their effect, even if DA Craig Watkins did lose after two terms because of self-inflicted controversies.

But I was unaware of the progress that Dallas had made in the realm of policing by current Chief David Brown and his predecessors.

Not that the job is over.

Blacks say they still are stopped for no reason far too often, and black parents still feel the need to warn their children — especially their boys — to be polite and compliant even if they feel they are being treated unfairly by officers.

Chief Brown knows there is more work to do, and is not defensive about it.

He and his predecessors have reduced excessive force complaints by 64 percent since 2010.

Police shootings dropped from 23 in 2013 to 11 in 2015.

For some, this week’s slaughter of five police officers will bring back images of Dallas as a hate-filled city.

But the images I take away are of protestors taking selfies with police officers before the shooting started.

Of police officers in summer uniforms, not riot gear, to handle a large but peaceful demonstration.

The image of a black man armed with a rifle being questioned and released — not shot — by officers in the tense moments after the violence had started.

The image of Chief Brown calling on the protestors to enlist in the police force to make it better, rather than joining some politicians in charging they are cop haters who provoked the assassin who killed his men.

And, of course, the image of Dallas cops running toward the shooter in their effort to protect their colleagues and the protestors.

Dallas has a new image, one the rest of the nation should be striving for.

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