A recent National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast put the lie to the Big Lie that protests in the wake of police killings of black citizens in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere have led to a significant uptick in violence against police across the country. The reasoning is a bit absurd. It goes like this: all the negative publicity regarding police activities has led to a decline in respect and fear of the police throughout the country. The protests have in a sense given permission for an “open season” on cops, according to this line of reasoning. Police departments around the country have joined right-wing politicians in bemoaning the so-called slaughter of cops instigated by the protesters, liberal politicians and the news media.
The argument doesn’t work, of course, unless there really has been a significant increase in violence against police, and as NPR has demonstrated, no such increase has occurred unless you put blinders on your eyes and ignore all but one set of statistics, the comparison between the number of police officers murdered in 2014 and 2013. It is true that cop killings surged from 27 in 2013 to 51 in 2014, but 2013 was the safest year for the police across the United States since the government started keeping records of these things. There were just as many cop killings in 2012 as in 2014, and far fewer in both those years than 2011. As Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina, points out, the rate of cop killings has gone down dramatically in every decade since the 1970s and now stands at less than 40% of the 1975 total.
The statistics just do not support the assertion that cop killings are on the rise. With the facts gone, how can anyone blame protest movements for something that isn’t even happening?
Those making the false case that protest causes violence typically aver that the protests are an overreaction to a “few bad apples.” I would love to believe the “few bad apples” argument, because that makes the problem easy—just get rid of the bad actors in police departments, as right-wingers want to get rid of bad teachers.
But the “bad apple” excuse doesn’t wash once we examine the facts, all of which suggest that the protest against minority killings is helping to change how America and American police departments think about institutional racism. For example, in most cases, the “bad apples” receive no punishment for killing minorities. They are exonerated by friendly district attorneys and those few who go to trial often get off scot free. The wholesale absolution of police officers who use violence in situations in which none is required is changing, with some now getting charged, but only since the protests started.
The “bad apple” excuse melts away for anyone who views the types of advertising that many police departments now place to attract new officers. The ads focus on how cool it is to be part of a SWAT team incursion and to use the sophisticated armament supplied over the past 30 years by the Department of Defense. These advertisements are certainly appropriate for the military, which has a need to attract individuals prone to violence and attracted to killing. But the job of the police is not to fight a foreign army, but to protect the citizens. Police officers do not walk among the enemy, as soldiers often do. By advertising to attract soldiers, not police officers, police departments over the past decade or so have filled their ranks with potential “bad apples.”
The Department of Justice is finding racial bias in the administration of justice in municipalities all over the country. The racial bias extends from stopping suspects, through arrests, treatment while incarcerated, likelihood of being tried and harshness in punishment. In all these areas, minorities get the short end of the stick almost everywhere—stops, arrests, inappropriate violence, formal charges, convictions, bail, fines, incarceration rate and years. The various investigations launched by DOJ and others virtually always result from a high-visibility incident such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson or Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
In other words, what the protests have done is to embarrass white America into admitting that minorities are frequently the subject of violent mistreatment by police across the country and into taking some baby steps to do something about it.
But we need to do more. In fact, the entire criminal justice system needs an overhaul, and that’s why organizations such as “Black Lives Matter” are absolutely essential.
Many of the protests against unnecessary police violence against African-Americans loosely affiliate with the unstructured “Black Lives Matter” movement, which began after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmermann, who murdered Trayvon Martin. Thus it makes perfect sense that the right-wing would go after “Black Lives Matter.” They do it in two ways.
First is the direct attack: Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are among the right-wingers who labeled “Black Lives Matter” a hate group, which is like calling Mother Teresa a sadist. I mean, really? These folks are trying to protect their community, and in particular their male children, and that sounds like love to me. The pursuit of justice never involves hate.
The second attack against “Black Lives Matter” is the insidious slogan “All Lives Matter,” perhaps the most code-loaded phrase since “Support Our Troops” graced bumper stickers as soon as the disastrous war in Iraq began in 2003. I used to yell at the many cars sporting the “Support Our Troops” regalia, “Yes, support them by bringing them home.” It pissed me off because I knew—and so did everyone else—that what the slogan really meant was “support the war, because if you don’t, you’re not supporting our soldiers, and that’s treason.”
In a similar way, the slogan “All Lives Matter” carries substantial meaning beyond the words. Let’s imagine if “All Lives Matter” came first and was not a reaction to “Black Lives Matter.” My response might be, “Of course, all lives matter. Let’s make sure of it.”
But it didn’t come first. “All Lives Matter” is a reaction by people who don’t ‘like “Black Lives Matter.” The people who sing out “All Lives Matter” typically either blindly support the police or are used to speaking in racial code to conceal their virulent racism. When they say “All Lives Matter” as a rejoinder to “Black Lives Matter,” it can only have one of two possible meanings: 1) Black lives are already being taken care of since all lives are being taken care of, which is a whitewash, since we know that in the criminal justice system, black lives don’t matter; OR 2) They don’t believe black lives matter. Both these positions are odious, the one based on a lie that enables racism, the other naked racism.
The leaders of the “Black Lives Matter” movement have displayed great strategic thinking to go after Bernie Sanders. None of the Republicans are going to be receptive to being associated with the “Black Lives Matter” program. Many do support criminal justice system reform to get people released from prison and into our shrinking workforce, but their base would not like them in bed with a “hate group.” I assume that Hillary Clinton is already with the program, as she is a long-time vocal supporter of minorities (and, BTW, is proving to be as left-wing as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren when it comes to most social, consumer, social service issues, taxation and economic issues). If it was to have a chance to matter after 2016, it was important for “Black Lives Matter” to get the ear of Sanders and now it looks as if they are going to have it. Well played.