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Passion, ethics collide over Black Lives

I almost organized a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

I had just watched the Facebook video of a blood-soaked Philando Castile, the mild-mannered cafeteria supervisor who was recently pulled over for a broken tail light and then shot to death by a frightened police officer in Minnesota.

I’d watched Castile moaning out his last breaths in the front seat of his car after he’d allegedly reached for his driver’s license as the officer requested. (The shooting is still under investigation.)

I’d heard the 4-year-old daughter of his sobbing girlfriend try to comfort her mommy.

And I’d seen a photo of about 20 black people lying down in a public place with a Black Lives Matter sign.

Yes, there are more and more White Lives showing up to support Black Lives in their peaceful protests. But I’m looking for masses and masses of justice-loving White Lives who are anguished by statistics such as this one from the Washington Post’s “fatal police shootings” database: Since 2015, unarmed black Americans have been killed by police at five times the rate of unarmed whites, their deaths averaging nearly two per week.

In Castile’s case, he was licensed to open-carry and had alerted the officer to the presence of his gun. But even if the officer was a good, decent guy and even if Castile made mistakes in his response, his death was still horrible and unfair.

So if you’re white, stop worrying whether you’d be co-opting a black movement or playing out a “great white hero” complex.

This is beyond polite, racially sensitive questions. This is beyond the mistakes some Black Lives Matter protesters may have made. This is life and death. This is a time to be so heartbroken and exasperated and convicted that you spring up out of your chair, grab some posterboard, a marker and a few good friends and rush to a highly visible public place.

Or at least that’s what I thought after reading how Castile, the beloved cafeteria supervisor, had memorized the names and food allergies of all 500 students at the school where he worked.

And after reflecting that this was just one of many, many such fatal mistakes that have killed Black Lives over decades.

But then I remembered I’m the News-Times editor. And journalists are traditionally supposed to hide their opinions. Would readers’ feelings about the paper be tainted if they saw me holding a Black Lives Matter sign?

Because strangely, the desire to NOT have innocent black men or boys killed by frightened police officers seems to have somehow become controversial.

Comments on the Blue Lives Matter Facebook page, for example, portray Black Lives Matter as an anti-police organization or even a “Domestic Terrorist Organization” (“This is a war, and Black Lives Matter is the enemy”) with a little racist stereotyping thrown in (“They should bring in police helicopters and drop hundreds of job applications on the protesters. They will scatter like roaches.”)

There have also been accusations that the media is trying to start a race war or that media coverage led to the shootings of Dallas police officers.

Truth is, I feel sick just imagining something terrible happening to the great officers and deputies I’ve come to know during my years covering Cornelius and Forest Grove.

And that’s one thing Black Lives and Blue Lives have in common: an awareness of how close they are to meeting that one wrong person who could blow up their life.

If the tension gets to be too much, Blue Lives can choose to take off their blue.

But Black Lives can never take off their Black.

I’m haunted by that daily, inescapable risk — and the fact that it’s just random luck I personally don’t have to live with it, that I didn’t have to give my 24-year-old son “the talk” about how ever-so-carefully he must act around police.

I haven’t yet decided about demonstrating. But Saturday I went to Portland and listened to seven monologues about the conflict between Black Lives and Blue Lives, performed by black actors (reddoorproject.org).

The “Hands Up” performance might come to Pacific University and if it does, go see it. It’s a powerful, honest account of the Black Lives experience.

Meanwhile, I’m still considering how to get involved and what consequences I might face. This column is a start. A sign and a street corner might be next.

Jill Rehkopf Smith is editor of the News-Times.