Repeated episodes of seemingly unjustified or excessive police violence against unarmed African Americans have led, in the last 13 months, to the emergence of a new social movement that Bernie Sanders calls “one of the most important causes of our generation.” He is speaking, of course, of the Black Lives Matter movement, whose spark was the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, and whose concerns extend beyond police violence against black Americans to broader issues of racial injustice in the criminal justice system.
These concerns are not new. Well-documented racial profiling of minorities by law enforcement agents has aroused anger and resentment for years. So have high-profile instances of police violence against unarmed African Americans, such as the 1992 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers (which led after their initial acquittal to a major riot) and the 1998 killing of Amidou Diallo by New York officers who mistook his wallet for a gun (they were exonerated by their department and by a jury).
But many Americans have been shocked in the last few years by the flood of news stories on police killings of unarmed black men and boys: not only Brown but also Tamir Rice (a 12-year-old shot by Cleveland police as he played with a toy gun in a public park), Eric Garner (an asthmatic choked to death by a New York City officer while being arrested for illegal sale of cigarettes), Walter Scott (who was shot eight times in the back while fleeing a confrontation with a South Carolina officer), and Freddie Gray (who died of a broken neck in the back of a careening police van after being arrested for running from police and carrying a pocketknife), among other examples.
I share Senator Sanders’ view about the significance of the BLM movement. My support for the movement does not of course signify approval of everything all of its supporters say or do. I condemn BLM’s disruptiveness of public speeches, not to mention occasional protesters with possible BLM affiliations who chant despicably in favor of copkilling. Moreover, I am agnostic about the shooting of Michael Brown: Officer Wilson was exonerated by the Justice Department even as it excoriated the Ferguson Police Department for systematic mistreatment of the minority population there. But I do embrace the central BLM belief that unjustified police violence against minorities remains a serious problem in the U.S. that urgently needs to be mitigated.
It would take more space than I have to give both the strong evidence for the seriousness of the problem and the range of partial solutions that are available (On the latter point I recommend the helpful BLM-related website joincampaignzero.org). But I would like to address some common objections to the BLM movement, naming a few prominent sources in the process.
1. White lives matter too, so the movement is racist (Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson).
Reply: Nobody is denying that white lives matter. A fuller rendering of the name of the BLM movement is “Black Lives Matter Too.” But the movement arose in a context in which it appeared that police officers, police departments, grand juries, and prosecutors valued white lives above black ones.
2. The movement is racially divisive (Carson).
Reply: As Martin Luther King knew well, calling attention to apparent racial inequities is actually less divisive than ignoring or failing to correct them. In any case, racial justice is more important than superficial racial unity.
3. The unarmed victims of police killings wouldn’t have died if they had obeyed orders.
Reply: Even if this is true, which is debatable in some cases, nobody deserves the death penalty for failing to obey an order. This is generally recognized in connection with unarmed white victims.
4. Many more African Americans die in black on black crime than at the hands of police; so that’s what the BLM movement should focus on instead of police killings (Rudy Giuliani, among many others).
Reply: This is blatantly illogical: It’s comparable to arguing that we shouldn’t pay special attention to terrorist violence against white Americans since many more white Americans die at the hands of other whites than at the hands of terrorists. Moreover, there is a special horror about the unjustified killing of black civilians by government officials whose mission is to “protect and serve” all Americans (I highly recommend in this connection Charles Blow’s article “Police Abuse is a Form of Terror,” The New York Times Aug. 12, 2015).
5. The BLM movement is promoting hatred of police officers in general (Rudy Giuliani, Ted Cruz).
Reply: As BLM supporters have emphasized over and over, condemnation of police misconduct in no way implies condemnation of police officers in general. Supporters acknowledge the vital role that officers play and their bravery in playing it.
6. The BLM movement’s activities have led to increased killing of police officers.
Reply: On the contrary, gun-related deaths of officers have declined since the start of BLM protests, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Two New York City officers were murdered by a deranged career criminal who claimed to be motivated by BLM-related protests against the police killing of Eric Garner. This tragic case hardly establishes the objection under consideration.
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