Danielle McLaughlin: There are divisions in America but the country remains united - so far

Minnesota police arrest a protester during a gathering this week following the acquittal of officer Jeronimo Yanez on a ...
REUTERS

Minnesota police arrest a protester during a gathering this week following the acquittal of officer Jeronimo Yanez on a manslaughter charge after the shooting of Philando Castile.

OPINION: It was winter, 2003. Sitting with friends at a high-top table at the Red Lion, a bar in Vail, Colorado in the US, I looked up to see a very tall African-American guy, mingling in the crowd, wearing a white visor.  It was OJ Simpson.

I felt the hot shock of celebrity recognition. What were the chances, I wondered.

An hour or so later, needing to get to the bathrooms near the front door on the other side of the bar, I waded into the crowd.

As strained as the relationship between police and communities has become in some parts of the country, there is not ...

As strained as the relationship between police and communities has become in some parts of the country, there is not looting or burning. We are not turning in on ourselves, writes Danielle McLaughlin.

Mid-way through the crowded space, I bumped up against Simpson. I looked directly up, into his face, over a foot above mine, and kept moving.

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Images filled my head: OJ as Detective Nordberg in The Naked Gun. OJ in a San  Francisco 49ers uniform. Helicopter footage of the slow-speed car chase of the White Bronco on the LA freeway. Bloody scenes from the Simpson-Brown murder.  His "trial of the century" had captivated me and the rest of the world.  The verdict was received with joyous vindication by LA's embattled African-American community after the 1992 Rodney King beating by police and subsequent acquittals. It was received with shock by most of the rest of the world. 

Did I just come face to face with a murderer?

We learned this week that OJ is up for parole next month and could be released in September, after serving a nine-year sentence for armed robbery.  As I cast my mind back to the mid-90s, it occurred to me that as politically divided as this country feels right now, there are no riots in the streets.  As strained as the relationship between police and communities has become in some parts of the country, there is not looting or burning.  We are not turning in on ourselves.

And yet.  This week, another acquittal of a police officer who shot and killed a black man during a routine police stop. Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker, who legally carried a gun and told officer Jeronimo Yanez he was armed, was shot by Yanez seven times through the open window of his car in Falcon Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis.  His girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter were in the car, too.  She live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook, and this week the dash-cam footage of the shooting was released.  It was, in a word, brutal.

In the aftermath of Rodney King's beating, 100 fires were started across LA.  After the acquittal of the police officers who beat him, the LA riots – one of the most destructive acts of civil disobedience in the 20th century – saw 3000 buildings burned, 60 people killed, and thousands more injured. President George Bush sent in troops to quell the uprising.

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After Yanez was acquitted, a few hundred protesters in Minneapolis marched, yelling "no justice, no peace." They closed down a local highway. There were 18 arrests.

Data on police killings is opaque. Castile was one of about 900 people shot dead by police last year. The trend appears to be increasing.

Are we just better behaved now, are we suffering from outrage fatigue, or have we normalised to this?

 - Sunday Star Times

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