I want white, law-abiding Americans to try and imagine what it must feel like to know there’s a chance that, as you drive home from work, or pop out to the grocery store to buy some milk, or go for a jog in your own neighbourhood you might be pulled over by a police officer who assumes you are a suspect and wind up dead. Imagine.
It is true, all lives matter, equally. Nobody should argue that. I am not arguing that.
Every single day in America the laws meant to affirm the equal rights of its citizens under the law hang like a sword of Damocles over the lives of black people. To suggest “black lives matter” is not to denigrate the lives of others, it is to decry the murder by officers of the law of another black man. It is to denounce the truth of how the application of “law” actually unfolds in America’s streets; as if all lives – except those of blacks – mattered.
For black folks, the harrowing reality is the law, in a society grounded in black slavery and white supremacy, is most often their most fearsome predator. Agents empowered with a badge and gun are dispatched to black communities, the racists among them secure in the belief their powers extend license to prey upon and denigrate the citizens they are supposed to protect and serve. When it is said “all lives matter” the ones who utter it are perpetuating an all too familiar truth in America: a negation of the lives of blacks when it comes to protecting the rights of citizens to freedom, liberty, and justice in the application of the laws of the land.
American history is littered with instances that clearly demonstrate how the culture believes some lives are disposable for the cause of the greater good. Most Americans are completely ignorant about how its transformation from an upstart British colony to the political and economic powerhouse it is today was absolutely dependent on the free, forced labour of black slaves. The practice foments to this day a pernicious reliance on exploitation as an essential business practice for wealth-creation; which today keeps both whites and blacks in a perpetual state of working poverty.
Throughout its history, America’s black lives have been used and abused like chattel for the nation’s white benefactors. Blacks have been segregated, criminalized, and incarcerated by a society unwilling to accept their equality. Still, more than a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, American institutions devise countless ways to marginalize blacks and perpetuate an unstated policy of white supremacy.
In modern times, especially since the civil rights movement, the justice system has been the most brutal, conspicuous noose around the necks of America’s blacks. It has disproportionately criminalized and punished crimes that go hand in hand with black poverty and disenfranchisement. In every election, Republicans introduce voter laws and engage in gerrymandering to disqualify and disenfranchise black voters.
In its failure to provide justice for the criminal conduct of police in their encounters with blacks, parallel justice systems have evolved: one for whites, which operates in accordance with constitutional guarantees and proportionality, and one for blacks where police act with impunity in monitoring, harassing, investigating and, as a matter of routine practice, infringing and violating the Constitutional rights of blacks. District Attorneys routinely lay felony charges and courts impose harsher punishments for the same crimes committed by whites. The whole system of American justice is unfairly rigged to deny the rights and privileges of full citizenship toward the nation’s blacks.
The failure of the justice system to punish instances of extrajudicial police brutality and murder of blacks has fomented authoritarian police cultures full of members who feel unrestrained in the excess they are entitled to use in pacifying the black communities they patrol. Thanks to “the law” countless numbers of America’s black men have been murdered in encounters instigated by racist police officers on the flimsiest legal grounds; by cops whose ideas about the threat a black man poses escalate like the hair triggers on the guns they too often use to squeeze the life out of the black, male suspects they incite.
No, not all lives matter. The lives of rich, white, corporate, privileged interests matter. The politicians and the powerful establishment are quick to respond to their needs with decisive political action. The criminal deeds of the rich – financial frauds, Ponzi schemes, tax evasion, economic graft and corruption – go mostly unpunished. Their concerns are top of the legislative agenda. The rest of the lives in America are left to fend for themselves. If those among the thrown-away lives happen to be black males, they will spend a lifetime being arbitrarily subjected to random interrogations by police, frisked and detained in front of their children and, worst of all, imprisoned or murdered for crimes borne of economic desperation.
Those who say “all lives matter” are denying all the reasons a person might lay claim to a legitimate grievance in these senseless killings of black men. It is a sweeping dismissal of the legacy of slavery, racism, and intolerance that built America and which today still rots away its moral fabric. The fact serious people are saying “all lives matter” despite the senseless killings that gave life to the “black lives matter” movement is the most clear-cut indicator that America still has not breached the racial divide.
To say black lives matter isn’t to suggest all other lives don’t matter. White Americans already know their lives matter because they can go to the store or go for a run in their neighborhood assured they won’t be stopped by a cop and killed for flinching. So stop the dog whistling. Let blacks, for once, air their grievances about injustice without shutting them down more than the justice system already does.
I am deeply disturbed by what I see transpiring on America’s streets and outraged by the sheer lack of moral leadership in response to these injustices. I have to confess, my horror is as much existential as it is ethical. These events are a stark reminder that my black-ness, which has intermittently been the object of mild racism here in Canada, could be the undoing of my existence should I choose to visit the United States. Until recently, I’ve been able to live in a state of relative denial about how my black-ness is of any social consequence.
Thanks to what I see in America on a regular basis, I am constantly reminded that my black-ness could get me killed. By a racist cop. What the fuck, America?
It makes me angry and it makes me frightened. It is a fear no law-abiding white person in America has to countenance, at least in relation to officers mandated to protect their communities. Given this reality, when it is said “black lives matter”, shut the fuck up and listen. Stop acting as if the facts do not clearly show how much more likely are black men to feel the sharpest, most brutal edge of American justice.
I am not anti-cop and I am tired of this dichotomy being thrown at those who express their desire for justice in these instances. Criticism of the thing does not imply a desire to negate the thing. The fact this constantly comes up in American discourse is an attempt to stifle the constructive dialogue that must begin to reform all the institutions of justice responsible for this despicable reality. It suppresses the voices of victims, ignores practical ideas to move forward, and discourages novel approaches to foster change for the better.
In my career in law enforcement, I have worked with countless police officers in an investigative capacity. I know police officers suit up every day and willingly plunge head first into harm’s way. It is no trivial matter to say that most cops are good. Their choice of career is a noble one. Depending on where they work, they may have one of the most dangerous middle class jobs out there. Those who turn these tragic events into an opportunity to fuel hatred of the police community have no idea the scores of good men and women tarnished by such a broad brush.
But cops are also human. They are not incorruptible. No group of human beings is. Human beings as they are, there is a chance they arrive to the job with a host of biases and attitudes they have learned in their surroundings. Some of these may adversely impact how they perform their jobs in relation to the blacks they encounter. They don’t recruit white cops from Mars to patrol streets in black neighbourhoods.
I grew up in a white family, in an affluent suburb where there were only white people – basically the same kind of environment as most white cops in America. I know that it would be difficult for a white person to have been reared in this environment and come away with positive views of black men. They would have had to rely on culture to fill in the mental gaps left by their lack of actual experiences of who black men are. I didn’t come away with a positive image of what it is to be black from appealing to the culture, and I am a black man.
It is important to say that “black lives matter” in order to displace the thousands upon thousands of images, media, and other cultural and social products that combine to fuel a mental proclivity to believe they don’t. It is to acknowledge the legacy of racism that pervades American culture and society which effectively negates, cheapens, and marginalizes black existence. It is to recognize that police officers are just as likely as anyone else to possess their culture’s predilection for racial bias; to posit that this may affect their judgement. It is to acknowledge the obvious: that, in America’s racially-divisive social context, many white cops are bound to possess racial biases that affect how they engage black men in their jobs.
In my heart I don’t believe these terrible crimes are rightly viewed as racist hate crimes, per se. However, racism does propel the cops in question to unlawfully engage their black victims in the first place. It perverts the legal reasoning the Constitution requires they apply before inferring the black citizen is a suspect and resuming their investigations. Racism makes these cops perceive the black victim’s protests about their mistreatment as threatening and non-compliant. Racism fuels the officers’ predisposition to escalate their tactics in response to the unfolding situation, because racism fuels the idea the black man is displaying a thug’s disrespect for authority.
Ultimately, a combination of racism, fear, and a widespread police culture of brutal authoritarianism writes the final chapter in a story where a black man gets killed by a cop in a completely lawless encounter. A person who is being detained on unlawful grounds cannot reasonably be said to be resisting arrest. In every instance this salient fact is always ignored. The second a police officer precipitates a deadly encounter on completely spurious, unlawful grounds, anything that transpires thereafter is the onus of the officer to defend, not the dead victim.
The needless murder of black men by rogue cops tells the same old story; one that tragically adds to the volumes overflowing in the annals of America’s white supremacy. The prologue in each of these horrors is written by racism, the chapters unfold in a plot driven by countless injustices, and the epilogue returns the reader to a familiar refrain: the black victim somehow had it coming. White readers are left secure in their delusion that the political and justice systems work fairly, just as they were intended. Indeed. The racist Canon that has shaped and distorted American minds for centuries remains intact. Some time will pass, until the next sordid volume in the American debacle is written in another black man’s death.
Denial of all the social realities that underlie these incidents do the good cops and the citizens they serve no good. These scenarios are often predicated by the social ills that come with black poverty and disenfranchisement. It is terrible that police, citizens with badges and guns, are left to sweep up what is a much larger social problem in America. If politicians were really pro-cop, they would put an end to this recurring nightmare with legislative, social, and economic programs to eradicate black poverty and stop criminalizing black existence.
I am the first to say most social ills do not easily submit to a casting of the issue in black and white. Except when it comes to the justice system in America. In that case there is one justice system for whites, and another for blacks. When black and white are treated the same in the US justice system, we will be able to say without a whiff of smugness or disdain that all lives matter.
Since black lives are repeatedly and violently repudiated by the justice system, to assert Black Lives Matter is not tantamount to reverse-racism. To say “all lives matter” in response is to flatly dismiss the systematic injustices against blacks that must come to an end. It further ingrains the ethos of racism denial, another in a long list of cultural tropes upon which America’s shameful legacy of white supremacy has endured. Anyone who utters it betrays their own racism by affirming the routine, lawless indignities and murders suffered by blacks in the justice system as defensible. In so doing, they uphold a long-standing American tradition of burying black lives under a cacophony of white noise.