Stop Tone-Deaf Attacks on ‘Black Lives Matter’


Donna Ladd

Martin Luther King Jr. would not approve of #BlackLivesMatter. Dr. King was about bringing people together. He would say, 'All lives matter,'" the tweet declared confidently.

I saw those words the morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It added insult to the pain I soon felt driving through Jackson seeing the symbol of the Confederacy in our state flag in front of schools and knowing that Mississippi is one of the union holdouts that still insists on celebrating Gen. Robert E. Lee alongside King's birthday. (Lee, by the way, was a Confederate hero who told followers after the war to mothball the rebel flag, that it was no longer a symbol to celebrate.

That jarring King Day tweet was from former U.S. Rep Joe Walsh, a white conservative from Illinois. His words, of course, slam the growing movement by a diverse group of Americans, many of them young, who are forcing change in traditional over-policing of citizens of color.

That pushback is on behalf of unarmed black men like Eric Garner in New York City and Mike Brown in Missouri, whose body police left lying in the street for hours. It is on behalf of women like Sandra Bland who was, at best, treated like a less-than-human when stopped for not signaling a lane change; at worst, pushed to an early death in a jail cell.

This movement, while vexing to many white Americans, is sadly overdue: These kinds of incidents, and disrespectful treatment, aren't new; our police cultures have long reflected the wider racial prejudice in our society, which in turn has justified extreme use of force and racial profiling.

That over-policing included stops of 4.4 million New Yorkers, more than 90 percent people of color, between 2002 and 2012 with only a small percentage found in violation of the law. And, yes, some cops also mistreat whites, but not in the same numbers as people of color and, perhaps even more importantly, not with white America loudly applauding them for it.

I just can't picture all the white parents who give their children toy (or even real) guns wholeheartedly blaming their child for waving it around an adult as Tamir Rice did, while defending the officer as clearly having no other options but to fire. Just like suburban officers who engage in hot pursuits after shoplifters, endangering innocents along the way, that officer did have options, even if he wasn't trained or managed well enough to know it. Policing experts can explain that to anyone actually willing to question cop actions rather than routinely blaming an adolescent "thug" for using 12-year-old logic.

Many U.S. police departments started out as slave patrols—from Mississippi to New York City—established to round up fugitive slaves and help masters control their human property. (One of the reasons Mississippi seceded and entered the Civil War was to make other states send back its escaped slaves, and force new states to legalize slavery to grow the U.S. slave trade and its profits).

It may not be fun to face now, but early police departments really were obsessed with keeping the races separate, with whites in a superior position and people of color compliant. The "majority" of citizens—at least the white ones—defended the status quo that allowed the discrimination and violence against citizens of color, down to red-lining them out of home loans and college admissions, even if hard-working and studious.

Those practices created and grew an underclass of people trapped by poverty in violent cycles, which then justifies to many the use of over-policing and investing in jail cells to, supposedly, stop the violence (even as both actually increase it). All the while, the enforcers are often riddled with the same societal implicit bias that believes certain people are more violent and less worthy of respectful treatment than the ones they've been taught are the upstanding ones.

That means cops often reach for the most violent tool in their toolbox, as former NYPD cop and now Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is black, explained to me. In turn, cops of color pick up the same habits, such as the black officers involved in the deaths of Garner and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. So, the deadly cycle continues.

Dr. King, of course, believed that all lives matter. He was also a victim of white supremacy who pushed back on false notions about black citizens and fought an ingrained system to recognize that, indeed, black lives do matter and just as much as white ones.

Due to ingrained bias and belief in the violence myth about people of color, America and our police can have a hard time accepting that fact, though. Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, (in)famous for that city's crime-reduction strategies, told me in an interview that police must communicate clearly to people of color, as well as Muslims, that they reject a "foundation of bias."

On King Day, Bratton tweeted a King photo and quote: "The time is always right to do what is right." Bratton wrote: "The NYPD is working, every day, to turn mistrust and separate to trust and partnership. The better we communicate, and the more we see each other for who we are—cops and citizens alike—the tighter we close the gap."

We all have the responsibility to communicate better. It's useless to whitewash Dr. King's goals of busting up systems built and enforced to ingrain historic inequalities and beliefs, and then rebooting on a level playing field. He fought for equitable distribution of public resources into schools and daily life (which many leaders still reject), but also so people could get to know each other as human beings and stop believing the divisive lies we've long been told about "the other."

But none of that means denying the inequalities or engaging in nonsensical false equivalencies like we see every day, from police and everyday citizens alike. This is worse since the #BlackLivesMatter movement took hold and started pushing back on police departments to shed the old habits and order-maintenance excuses, and provide the long-overdue training that can move departments into this century on race communications.

Belittling and co-opting the "matters" theme is a dreadful way to improve communication and bridge gaps—especially when it's still tough to even indict violent cops. Not to mention, acting like saying "black lives matter" means that others' lives don't is a terrible exercise in critical thinking. More police, from commissioners and chiefs like Bratton to rookies on the street, who actually want to see the "gap" closed should challenge those who belittle #BlackLivesMatter whether with #alllivesmatter, #bluelivesmatter or #horselivesmatter—a cringe-worthy sign used in the New York horse-carriage debate—and lead by example by holding, and pushing, two thoughts at once.

To protect and serve, police must say to citizens of color: "Yes, your lives matter just as much as ours, and we will prove it."

We all need to say often that #BlackLivesMatter until every person in this country, especially those paid to protect and serve all of us, start to believe and live it.


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