Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Ending the civil war

Ending the civil war

This looks like the beginning of a civil war.

The chaos and violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin are unfolding as I write. I feel as though I’m watching some natural disaster develop, suddenly overpowering any hope for social change “before it’s too late.”

Is it already too late — that is to say, too late to disarm our concept of social order and, for God’s sake, safety? The American problem of guns is not only that there are so many of them, vastly more than there are people; and that they are deemed, by so many Americans, necessary for survival and empowerment, commanding a reverence in the collective imagination right there alongside the flag and the cross; but also, that they are inextricably linked, in so many ways, with American racism.

The American racial divide — at least one side of it — is armed. Indeed, the original Civil War, I fear, never ended. For the next century it was called Jim Crow and was simply part of the national norm. After the Civil Rights movement, however, it had to be waged in privacy, behind a veil of platitudes and lies. The privacy ended with the advent of the cellphone video, which began exposing the police killings of men and women of color for what they were: acts of government terrorism, a.k.a., war. These killings may have been “unofficial,” but were never merely the result of bad apples disobeying orders and violating the values of their profession. They were upholding the values.

The raw obviousness of this is what makes the videos of police actions, fatal and otherwise, against people of color, so horrific to observe. Consider the most recent viral video: the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha on Aug. 23.

The police, responding to a call of a domestic dispute, apparently determined that Blake was the perpetrator and began struggling with him. There is significant witness testimony that Blake had intervened to break up the fight. But officers determined Blake was at fault. Blake ignored their orders, walked away and opened his car door.

It was a modestly complex misunderstanding. In a different world, this could have been handled courteously. But in today’s America, Blake had committed a capital offense.

One officer fired at him from behind with no hesitation. Seven shots rang out! This is beyond credulity ... But it was also situation normal: An African-American man was being shot in the back, over and over and over. And his three sons were in the backseat of the car. One of them had been celebrating his eighth birthday.

Miraculously, Blake survived, though he may never walk again.

Joe Biden said: “These shots pierce the soul of our nation.”

And the Milwaukee Police Association declared:

Politicians need to remain calm until everything comes out. 

In other words, while it may well be OK to shoot someone in the back without “knowing the facts” (e.g., who is this person?), rushing to judgment afterward can cause harm. 

And then the protests began. The media coverage basically seems to regard the protests, whether nonviolent or violent, as a single entity. 

And most protesters accept that responsibility: staying peaceful and urging others to do the same. When looting and fires erupt anyway, they view it with regret and despair. 

The problem here is that the whole thing remains in us-vs.-them mode: Even peaceful protesters face police firing teargas and rubber bullets, especially if the protesters cross certain boundaries.

But the protest isn’t just a show; the point is transcendent change. 

Too many people in this country want to continue the civil war.

This is half a civil war. Some of the participants are police and some are vigilantes. They are armed and desperate for enemies.

To the extent the protests stay peaceful, they lose.

Robert Koehler (, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story