For the past few months, news feeds and timelines have filled up with opinions about the current #BlackLivesMatter movement gaining strength and solidarity across the country. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Kajieme Powell, and the growing list of unarmed people of color killed at the hands of law enforcement have sparked an important conversation about targeted, aggressive, and racialized encounters between police and the black community. The increased militarization of the police force, use of mass incarceration and excessive sentencing and the prevalence of the politics of fear against communities of color so deeply embedded into our public consciousness are all being brought to the forefront of a national conversation about race and justice.
If you choose to engage with or participate in this growing conversation, you do not have to look very long or very hard to understand that Americans are not terribly comfortable with facing our nation’s history of racial injustice and its legacy in modernity. It is truly astonishing to read the opinions so bravely put forth from behind the veil of anonymity and protection of a computer screen, where the vast majority of contributors enter online conversations confidently, armed with definitive and defensive conclusions about racialized policing. Yet this argumentative rhetoric is often just an echo of the opinions set forth on the nightly news cycle of one’s choice, and it is obvious that we are much more comfortable challenging the reality of a difficult history than engaging with its consequences.
This climate of denial has begun to manifest itself through the use of counter-protests and social media campaigns challenging the growing expression of tension between police officers and communities of color. Hashtags refuting the claims and experiences of #BlackLivesMatter protesters have popped up across the internet, and a widely circulated Facebook Event has asked followers to attend a virtual showing of support for law enforcement nationwide. Called “Operation #PoliceLivesMatter,” this call to rhetorical arms communicates a direct retaliation to the now well known mantra of protesters across the country who march in solidarity for black lives lost at the hands of policing and privilege. The rallying cry of “I Can’t Breathe,” a nod to the plea Eric Garner desperately voiced 11 times following a choke hold that then killed him, has become a universal message of the suffocation felt by Black Americans under systemic violence and oppression. It has been met with signs and t-shirts defending police actions reading “I Can Breathe,” a misappropriation of the final words Garner spoke before his death. The now symbolic position of surrender with hands raised used by protesters accompanied by the cry, “Hands up, don’t shoot” has been met with the critical and racially-freighted counter-slogan “pants up, don’t loot.”
Through all of this retaliation, one thing has become abundantly clear:
We are missing the point.
We do not need to point out that there are certain groups of people who feel protected and served by the police force, who can breathe easy in a system that upholds their human rights and human dignity. We know that there are police officers who serve bravely and protect lives.
We do not need to ignore the complex issues of racialized injustice by focusing on isolated occurrences of looting and rioting, particularly when the underlying tension that can contribute to a climate of vandalism is based in such serious issues as police violence and codified racism. After all, people have rioted about much less in this country. We know that rioting is an often inevitable byproduct of anger and opportunity.
We do not need a social media campaign to declare that police lives matter. We, as an American community, accept that the lives of police officers are valuable. We collectively and rightfully mourn any and all lives lost while serving in the line of duty. We condemn the senseless act of violence that took the lives of two Brooklyn police officers in December. We know that police lives are invaluable.
We know all of these things. We are having a harder time accepting the reality that these protections, these rights, these freedoms, do not exist for everyone.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement makes public a collective dissent against a system that condemns, trivializes, and kills black and brown people with impunity. It is the embodiment of the collective frustration, anger, and pain of a community held down by a racialized history of violence and punishment that we refuse to acknowledge, let alone repent from and redeem. It serves as a communal voice, united in ideals of justice and peace, that will interrupt daily routine in an effort to remind the world that confrontation with these issues cannot be avoided, and that convenience and consumerism are not more important than the lives and experiences of Black Americans.
When a police officer is killed, we do not question the validity or his or her victimization. We are broken-hearted at the violence that took a father from his daughter, a daughter from her parents, a brother from his sister. We are outraged by the death of a human being at the hands of another human being, because it violates the natural order in which people are meant to exist. We have a gut-wrenching, immediate, and sickening reaction to human blood spilled. We confirm, without having to say it, that police lives matter.
Similarly, we are outraged when members of certain communities – whether privileged through race, or class, or social status – are victimized or attacked. We have a collective sense of injustice when violence is perpetrated against those bodies deemed valuable in our society. We are in shock when the loss of these bodies is treated as anything less than innocent and tragic.
But stunningly, when victims of these same violent attacks are men or women of color, or come from a particular neighborhood, or are dressed in particular clothing, our first reaction is to find justification for why their murders were warranted and even deserved. The media presents black children as “criminals,” and their daily activities become the subject of intense speculation and analysis to find evidence of some sort of illegal activity. Regardless of whether or not such activity is proven, the absurd assumption behind these efforts is that non-violent crime (like shoplifting) warrants the death penalty, and that the execution of an unarmed civilian is not only justified, but necessary. Such callous and merciless public opinion exists predominantly and consistently toward the black community, yet we do not take the time to figure out why this harshness persists.
#BlackLivesMatter exists so that, when a black life is senselessly lost to violence, we may offer the same collective sympathy we do for any other victim, even and especially if that violence is perpetrated by those to whom we entrust our public safety.
#HandsUpDontShoot exists so that we may allow ourselves to see the wrongfulness of a person killed while unarmed, and the systemic profiling that contributes to such tragic and avoidable deaths.
#ICantBreathe exists to honor the man killed in a world that did not respect his most basic rights to life and liberty, and to bring together those people who are smothered by a system that condemns them without question.
#BlackLivesMatter is a call to action. It is a necessary declaration of human dignity brought to the forefront of a discussion necessitated by the violent, untimely, and unjust deaths of black men and women across the country. It is the continuation of a centuries’ long conversation about human and civil rights and their complex implementation in reality. Such specificity in rhetoric and action would not have to exist if we committed ourselves to what Bryan Stevenson calls “a process of truth and reconciliation” with our difficult and racialized history.
We have proven not only through the perpetual murder and oppression of black life, but also in our unceasingly unempathetic response to and dismissal of these losses, that we, as an American community, do not believe that all lives matter. But admitting this would have to include a sincere act of national introspection, a confrontation with a history that we have been adamantly avoiding for generations, a selfless ability to listen to those who experience American life in a less than ideal way, and a humble confession of our own complacency and participation in the persistence of an unjust society.
But it is probably just a lot easier to come up with a catchy counter-protest hashtag.