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Analysis: For a state in pain, a little empathy is only a start

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President Donald Trump speaks with Gov. Greg Abbott in the Oval Office on Thursday, May 7, 2020. REUTERSREUTERS/Tom Brenner/POOL

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Without a discouraging word about the president, the governor of Texas is nevertheless creating a sharp distinction between the Texas response and the Donald Trump response to nationwide demonstrations against police brutality.

Appearing with local leaders and law enforcement and National Guard officials in Dallas, Gov. Greg Abbott deplored the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, expressed respect for protesters who’ve reacted with marches and demonstrations in the state’s towns and cities, and promised — with a phalanx of people in law enforcement and National Guard uniforms standing behind him — that the state will crack down on those who commit violence or vandalism.

It was an uncharacteristically crisp show of leadership from a governor who has dithered through the pandemic, initially deferring to local leaders and later overriding them, setting a standard for when it would be safe to begin loosening restrictions and then jumping the gun, dropping many of his own plans to phase out restrictions on businesses and people and then — in the face of protests — diluting enforcement of his executive orders and rushing what he had said would be a slow reopening of the state’s business and cultural institutions.

Now, with people marching nightly in protest of yet another killing of a black man by police, Abbott is responding with both a show of force and words of empathy.

Abbott’s words were similar to those used by Trump a day earlier. Trump, too, called himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters.” But the president’s emphasis was on cracking down on “professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa and others,” and on sending the military into American cities to “dominate the streets.”

He was talking war, not peace. Trump didn’t call for martial law, though he described it pretty well: “Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets. Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled. If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Abbott, though he used a lot of the same words and touched some of the same points as the president, was talking peace, not war.

“People are rightfully angry,” he said. Unlike Trump, Abbott distinguished the protesters — nearly counting himself among them — while deploring violence and vandalism. “Restoring calm in our communities does not complete our task,” he said, promising that the state government will “use this moment to bridge our divide.”

Abbott was asked about Trump’s Monday telephone conversation with mayors and with the president’s talk of sending soldiers. “We will not be asking the United States military to come into the state of Texas because we know Texans can take care of Texas,” he said. Abbott had already activated the Texas National Guard over the weekend in response to the demonstrations.

Abbott, like Trump, is officially focused on violence and vandalism — the subject of his news conference and, he said, of the conversations he’s having with police and elected officials right now.

Unlike the president who leads his political party, a governor who has resorted frequently to post-trauma roundtables of concerned residents and groups said he’s open to criminal justice reforms in response to Floyd’s death.

He’s got plenty of examples, even without crossing state lines to look at recent cases in Minnesota, Kentucky or any other state: Botham Jean in Dallas, Michael Ramos in Austin, Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth and so on.

A little empathy is great. Action is better. What’s left is for Abbott and other leaders to actually do something when the demonstrations and the news conferences subside.

That would really set Texas apart.