The Role of Collective Memory in Collective Action

For many Dallasites, the murder of five police officers in downtown Dallas brought about memories of JFK’s assassination just blocks from where a lone gunman shot 11 officers. This tragedy brings to mind another violent event from the city’s history, the 1910 public lynching of Allen Brooks at the Old Red Courthouse. Brooks was pulled from a second-story courtroom with a rope around his neck, his dead body dragged down Main Street to be hung for display at the Elks Arch, a symbolic gateway to the city. It was a gruesome path across the same streets trod in a July 7 protest.

You see, Dallas is plagued by racial injustice. Our ability to collectively suppress the memory of injustice leaves us confused and searching for answers when racism confronts us in disturbing and violent ways.

This is one reason a younger generation of activists in Dallas is taking to the streets to speak out about the recent police shootings of people of color. In a city where progress has traditionally been hindered by accommodation and attempts to ignore history, it is necessary to take a more visible approach to demanding equity and meaningful reform now.

Dallas, like much of the United States, has a brutal racial history if one looks. Some residents know that this includes the 1860s fire that was quickly blamed on an imaginary slave revolt and agitating outside abolitionists, where white people killed three Black men at the Trinity River, not far from the recent massacre. This also includes the Klan Day at our beloved State Fair of Texas in the 1920s, the taking of Black-owned properties for resale to white homeowners in the 1940s through eminent domain and the bombing of Black homes in the 1950s. The past is not even past: a 2013 HUD investigation found that the City of Dallas’ affordable housing practices violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Most of us, from Dallas natives to more recent arrivals, did not learn these histories unless they were shared by friends or people working in social justice. Yet they are woven into some of the most vibrant spaces in our city. The booming, predominantly white, Uptown district just north of downtown was produced by gentrification and demolition of the African American State-Thomas district, one of Dallas’ three historical Freedman’s towns as well as the Little Mexico neighborhood, a safe haven for Mexicans fleeing their Civil War in the 1910s. The beautiful Trinity Audubon Center was built to remedy decades of illegal dumping in a predominantly Black neighborhood that residents had protested for decades.

Historically, city leaders have been complicit in quelling meaningful discussions about race and equality. The 1960s accommodation between the Dallas Citizens’ Council and Black pastors thwarted civil rights organizing in the short-term in exchange for a shot at long-term integration. For decades, this type of suppression kept many residents silent in the face of structural racism because there was no space and no precedent for such organizing in our city.

Collective action requires a public sphere, comprised of physical space, political space and conversational space. The July 7 rally was a hopeful step. The violence that marred it was tragic in ways we are still struggling to fathom. Dallas desperately needs places where citizens are able to visibly voice their opinions, where we can push past the blue lives/Black lives divide and create action that breaks down the white/Black/Brown divide. We cannot do this without also owning our racial history and reconciling that our existing public places of discourse have also been sites of intense physical, cultural and racial violence.

By identifying spaces throughout our city that have been sites of racial injustice and violence, we open the door for honest dialogue about who we have been and who we want to be. Dallas’ mayor has worked hard to open this door. Forty years after a Dallas police officer shot Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old Latino boy, while he sat handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, Mayor Mike Rawlings apologized to his family and the Latino community. His apology was made at Dallas’ City Performance Hall downtown, just blocks from where a protest following Rodriguez’s death resulted in five Dallas police officers being injured. Although 40 years is too long to wait for an apology, Rawlings understood the importance of the city’s leader speaking those words, especially in a city plagued by a bad case of racial and ethnic amnesia.

As leaders in education, philanthropy, health, urban planning and criminal justice, we fully support Chief David Brown in his call for all sectors to work to make our city safer and Mayor Mike Rawlings’ commitment to tackle racism head on. Dismantling the infrastructure of racism is not the work of the police or elected officials alone.

As we begin to look down potential paths for our city — using racial equity impact assessments more widely, supporting the protesters and the police in ongoing reform discussions, creating a truth and reconciliation process for restorative justice, answering calls for mental health research — we must create and safeguard spaces to be uncomfortable together, across race, political affiliation, job title and zip code.

Acknowledging spaces and places of unrest and tension is as significant to the cultural fabric of a city as arts districts, breathtaking bridges and signature cuisine. Had we as a city remembered our checkered history of racial inequity and violence long ago, we might not only celebrate a police department that’s a model for community policing but also shine bright on fair housing policies and quality public schools for every child.

We need to be that city now.

Note: Lizzie McWillie, a senior design manager at buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, contributed with Natalie Roetzel Ossenfort, Texas director of Alliance for Justice, and members of the Dallas Public Voices.