Blue Lives Matter campaign muddies fight for racial justice
Opinion Column: Midweek Crisis
I was driving down to campus last week, and I saw a giant billboard: “Blue Lives Matter. #thankublu” written in bold, capital white letters over the image of a police badge. I almost stopped my car in the middle of the lane. This is not the sort of ridiculous propaganda I’d expect to see stuck up here, in Central Jersey, overlooking good old Route 1 North between that new Costco/Target complex and the Shoppes at North Brunswick plaza.
The billboard is apparently one of several hundred donated by Louisiana-based Lamar Advertising. The company already has more than 300 of these billboards set up in public spaces across the country to “recognize the local police departments and men and women that put their lives on the line every day,” according to a spokesperson.
That might be an admirable gesture, if it wasn’t done in such clearly poor taste.
Aside from the unbelievably tacky move of plagiarizing messaging from the already popular Black Lives Matter movement, this “Blue Lives Matter” campaign serves to very dangerously undermine the relationship between the black community and law enforcement. Claiming “Blue Lives Matter” is an intentionally direct countermovement that is flagrantly racist, attempting to construct and pit two ideologies against each other: cops versus black people. It would be almost laughably petty, if its implications weren’t so downright disturbing. The campaign creates intense polarization where there is meant to be none, and it’s this schism that is responsible for inciting the relatively rare cases of anti-police violence that critics of the Black Lives Matter movement love to point out.
Conflating the very nuanced message of Black Lives Matter with the problem of some cops being killed in the line of duty or by anti-police violence does not work. There’s a huge difference between police brutality and anti-police violence: The first is an institutionally enabled issue, and the second is an anomalous reaction — not one to condone, but a reaction nonetheless — to that issue. Police departments are plagued by racialized policing tactics that criminalize people of color, especially black people, and lead to disproportionately higher rates of arrest and incarceration among black communities. These policies have created a culture of police brutality that dehumanizes black people and has somehow made the cops’ extrajudicial murder of black people a regular (and apparently acceptable) occurrence.
Just two days ago, a video went viral of a police officer brutally assaulting and arresting a 15-year-old black girl at Spring Valley High School. When she verbally refused to get out of her seat, rather than behaving like a rational adult, Officer Ben Fields dragged her in her desk across the room and flipped her over, slamming her to the floor. While most of the social media posts I read were from people who are on the same page about how absolutely disgusting and out of line this incident was, there’s an equally vocal group of people out there who can find reasons to justify the police officer’s behavior. Usually, this justification is along the lines of concern for a police officer’s safety when dealing with belligerent resistance to arrest. There is video evidence to prove that this 5-foot-6 unarmed teenage girl posed absolutely no threat to the officer. What is it, then, that compels a trained police officer to resort to this kind of violence?
In a recent Rasmussen poll, 58 percent of respondents believed that there is a “war on police.” But measured rates of homicide of cops, according to FBI crime rate statistics, indicate otherwise: 2015 is actually on track to be the second safest year for the police (after 2013), and one of the safest years overall in terms of both assaults and homicides of police officers in decades. Fewer people are assaulting and killing police officers, but more police officers are assaulting and killing black people than ever before. By the end of 2015, trends indicate there will have been about 35 police killings, but as of this week, 980 people have been killed by police officers this year.
Media sensationalism and political rhetoric constantly feed into this idea of a war between law enforcement and black communities, and starting a campaign called “Blue Lives Matter” is an irresponsible contribution to that dichotomy. But while this exaggerated rhetoric about violence against police is manifesting itself in actual police violence against civilians, the opposing negative public attitudes toward this kind of police behavior don’t mean much when they’re not implemented in the form of tangible policy reform. Our own classic governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie is vocal in his opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement. In an interview on CBS this week, Christie blamed the leaders of Black Lives Matter for creating a dangerous environment for police officers, and accused President Obama for encouraging “lawlessness” in his support of the movement. Law enforcement policy is a major issue on the national political agenda, and if we really want to see police reform, we need to start by taking our political leaders (including Christie, it seems) to task.
The Black Lives Matter movement is not about the police or about white people — it’s quite simply about black lives. To co-opt this movement and try to turn it on itself is absolutely deplorable, and completely misses the point. It needs to be understood that black lives are in constant danger because of the racist application of a broken criminal justice system, and detracting from that issue with a counter campaign only goes to show how necessary it is to have to emphasize that “black lives matter” in the first place.
Sabah Abbasi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and public health with a minor in Arabic. Her column, “Midweek Crisis,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. She is the former Opinions Editor of The Daily Targum.