Sometimes there are things that happen that are so breathtakingly horrible that you have to take a minute to ask: What the hell is going on here?

The gutless ambush killing of Dallas law enforcement officers is mind-blowing in its sickness. To kill people merely because they are white and because they are white police officers is both revolting and scary.

The shooter, killed early Friday, is an African-American man who police say told them his anger against white people was fueled by the recent deaths of black men by white police officers.

This is an American tragedy.

But even in our sadness we have to move forward to separate this lunacy from where we are with the case that we need to give deeper thought to — how we police in the African-American community.

The irrational thoughts and deadly behavior of the killer in Dallas appear to be the actions of a person with serious emotional and mental health issues. He is not representative of the thousands of people who have assembled and marched peacefully this week to protest the deaths of Alton Sterling here and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota.

We live in time when the bombardment of social media and minute-by-minute TV news can ratchet up emotions to the breaking point for the weakest of us. The power of repetitive visuals will rip away the thin strands of reality holding some people together. This is probably part of the reason we see people shooting up movie theaters and schoolhouses.

The peaceful marchers and protesters here in Baton Rouge are obviously dismayed by the cowardice of the assassin in Dallas. Even in this tragedy, those protesters can still march for their beliefs.

It is possible that they can be respectful of, and pray for, the families of the dead and wounded in Dallas while simultaneously asking law enforcement officers to be better at their jobs.

On Wednesday evening, I met Jonathon Brown, a rail-thin 24-year-old graffiti artist. Brown is a walking canvass of tattoo art. His nickname is a Skinny Dope. I liked the nickname. I grew up with guys nicknamed La La, Mule Bladder and Dirt, so I know good nicknames.

I was struck by the dedication he was putting into his “RIP Alton” picture on the side of a building near where Sterling was shot and killed in a tussle with police officers.

The Skinny Dopes of the world and I don’t cross paths often. Our interests are probably vastly different. Yet, here we were, a short distance away from hundreds of people at a vigil to pray for the Sterling family and to protest his death.

“I had to come out here. I feel this is where I had to be and this is what I had to do,” Skinny Dope said, pointing at his artwork. “I hope that the family will see this and that it will bring them some happiness … some closure.”

He was passionate, yet his voice was very calming. In a way, he represented the segments of the Baton Rouge community angered by Sterling’s death, but who were keeping their passion in check.

The video of Sterling’s last seconds of life was painful to watch. The actions of the police officers and Sterling still have to be explained, and a legal resolution has to be reached.

“Look, I don’t know if this was racism or not. But, what I saw (on the videos) looked like police brutality,” Skinny Dope said. “I know we need to do something. They have to do something to stop this kind of stuff from happening again and again ... This did not have to happen this way.”

As we move forward, it’s important that we understand and salute the valor of the men and women in blue who never know if they are going to come home when they get in their vehicles every day. Yet, they risk it all because they know there would be chaos without them.

Equally important, people must continue to protest and do so with strong conviction, but peacefully, if they feel there is something wrong among the ranks of law enforcement.

We can reach a peaceful resolution to all of this.

Email Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, at