It’s a tired, familiar message: In response to people raising the slogan “Black lives matter” and talking about systemic police violence disproportionately targeted toward people of color, opposing voices — from police, pundits and politicians galore — try to redirect the conversation to heroic sacrifices made by dedicated cops.
“All lives matter,” they say, “Blue lives matter.” But what they’re really saying is that Black lives don’t matter as much.
In late May, Louisiana lawmakers enacted what’s become known as the “Blue Lives Matter” law — making their state the first in the country where police and other public safety officers are now considered a “protected class” under hate crimes laws. This means anyone judged to have targeted cops, firefighters or emergency medical personnel because of those jobs will now face more severe penalties, including an additional five years in prison.
“The men and women who put their lives on the line every day, often under very dangerous circumstances, are true heroes and they deserve every protection that we can give them,” said Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in a statement as he signed the legislation. “They serve and protect our communities and our families. The overarching message is that hate crimes will not be tolerated in Louisiana.”
State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson said in a statement: “For those individuals who choose to target our heroes, the message formalized in this legislative act should be clear and the consequences severe.”
Of course, the consequences for assaulting or killing a police officer are already severe — more so than for killing an average person in most cases, as Edmonson and other officials well know. According to the Washington Post, Louisiana and at least 36 other states already have extra criminal penalties for those who are found guilty of assaulting police officers. “Killing a police officer, in many states, can be an aggravating factor or circumstance that makes the crime eligible for the death penalty,” the Post reported.
The justification for the law is a myth perpetrated in the wake of the national eruption of protest against police brutality, starting in 2014. Police and their supporters are claiming that, because of the protests, cops now have a target on their backs.
“Blue Lives Matter” turns reality on its head — suggesting that cops are dying at the hands of criminals, maybe even protesters, while ignoring the hundreds of victims of police violence, disproportionately Black, Latino and Indigenous, who die each year.
To date, Louisiana has had zero officer fatalities in 2016. But as of June 7, police in the state had killed eight people this year according to “The Counted,” a project of Britain’sGuardian newspaper to track U.S. deaths at the hands of police. In all, some 453 people have been killed by police across the U.S. since the beginning of 2016.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 42 police offers were shot and killed in the line of duty in 2015. On the other hand, the number of Blacks who were killed by police last year is eye-catching.
According to statistics from the FBI compiled by Mapping Police Violence, 346 Black people were killed by police in 2015. Furthermore, Blacks are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites and 30 percent of the Black victims were unarmed.
Nearly 70 percent of the Blacks who were killed by police officers were later viewed as nonviolent and were never a severe threat to the public or officers. Out of hundreds of cases where Blacks were killed, 97 percent of the officers involved were not convicted.
Calling it “one of the most ridiculous laws of 2016,” Rolling Out wrote that the Blue Lives Matter law is “a racist jab at the Black Lives Matter movement…If Edwards, or any sensible lawmaker, actually took the time to investigate those appalling numbers, it would call for immediate action to protect citizens. Police brutality and the killing of unarmed Blacks remains a national crisis that should be addressed as such.”
According to the claims of police defenders, the outpouring of anger at police after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to officers being hamstrung by increasingly onerous public scrutiny.
In reality, the legal system’s double standards regarding police on the one hand and those who dare to challenge violence and brutality on the other was on full display last week when Black Lives Matter activist Jasmine Richards was convicted in California of “felony lynching.”
The charge technically refers to “the taking by means of a riot of another person from the lawful custody of a peace officer.” Richards and other activists attempted to pull a woman who was being arrested and, they felt, brutalized, away from Pasadena police. In addition to felony lynching, prosecutors had originally charged Richards with inciting a riot, child endangerment, and delaying and obstructing peace officers, before dropping those charges.
According to Pasadena Now, Richards is the first African American to ever be convicted of the charge of “lynching.” She was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years of probation.
As Richards’s attorney, Nana Gyamfi, told Vox: “Clearly this is a political prosecution. Its intention is to stop people from organizing, and from speaking out and challenging the system. There’s a political message that’s been sent by both the prosecutor and the police and, by conviction, the jury.”
Likewise, the “Blue Lives Matter” law is designed to send a “political message”: the police are above the law, even when they murder, and politicians will make sure it stays that way.
Despite being repeated ad nauseum, the idea that cops are being deliberately targeted with violence has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked. According to FBI statistics, 2015 was one of the safest years on record to be a police officer, as Alternet reported:
Agency data shows 41 officers were killed in the line of duty last year, a drop of 20 percent from one year prior. Only in 2013, when felonious police fatalities hit an historic all-time low, were fewer officers killed while doing their jobs. The year 2015 tied with 2008 for the second-lowest death rate for police on record.
Despite the public perception — encouraged by the likes of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and FBI Director James Comey — that police are under fire as a result of anti-cop “prejudice” engendered by the Black Lives Matter movement, the reality is that being a police officer routinely fails to crack the top 10 of most dangerous jobs in America.
Data for 2014 released last month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts cops at number 15 on the list — well below loggers (number 1, with 110.9 fatal on-the-job injuries per 100,000), roofers (number 4, with 47.4 fatalities per 100,000), farmers and ranchers (number 6, with 26.7 fatalities per 100,000), and taxi drivers and chauffeurs (number 10, with 18 fatalities per 100,000). For every 100,000 cops, there were just 13.5 fatal on-the-job injuries in 2014 — and that includes things like car accidents, not only deaths from violence — the data showed.
But no politician yells that “construction workers’ lives matter” or calls for laws to protect the safety of loggers. Cops get special consideration because, along with racism, pro-police ideology is central to the American injustice system.
It’s why Emanuel and Comey can assert — with straight faces and despite all the evidence to the contrary — that police are not only being targeted today, but that as a consequence, they are too intimidated or demoralized to do their jobs out of fear that they will be videotaped and their actions unfairly taken out of context.
Comey told the New York Times in May that there’s “a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime — the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?'” as a result of fears that they will be scrutinized on video.
Perhaps Comey needs a refresher course in the laws that he’s supposed to uphold. Cops have no business harassing any group about what they’re “doing here” at 2 a.m. without having just cause to believe they have committed a crime.
But as Alternet’s Kali Holloway writes,
It’s far easier to gin up fears about Black Lives Matter than it is to address longstanding tensions between the cops and poor communities of color. It plays with a certain audience, both for votes and ratings. What it doesn’t do is genuinely address any of the real issues at the heart of the current debate around policing.