I posted somewhat of an emotional rant a few days ago after watching the body camera footage of unarmed black Sam Dubose being shot in the head by white police officer Ray Tensing at point blank range…followed by Tensing blatantly lying to his fellow officers about what happened as a way of trying to make himself look innocent. I wrote what I wrote in the context of those fresh emotions. In reflection, I think there are a few key points that need to be understood, particularly by whites, regarding the #BlackLivesMatter conversation:
1. The reason that making an extra concerted effort to proclaim that black lives matter is because for most of our history, they haven’t.
Whether it be slavery, Jim Crow laws, or the free reign white police officers had throughout the Civil Rights Movement to savagely beat blacks without any legal repercussions, America has a long history of black lives not mattering. This has not been the case with any other demographic group to the extent seen among black people in U.S. history.
2. The lack of prosecution of police officers who kill unarmed black men is the key behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Yes black people kill black people, and they are prosecuted for it. Yes black people kill police officers, and they are prosecuted for it. What #BlackLivesMatter is protesting is that when a black person gets killed by a white police officer, the officer is always taken at his word and is almost always not prosecuted (just like it’s been throughout America’s dark history). The recent Sam Dubose / Ray Tensing case is a good example of the progress made since Ferguson. Because of #BlackLivesMatter style protests and awareness, the police force at the University of Cincinnati adopted body cameras. (The UCPD began wearing body cameras in October 2014, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson in August 2014, just two months prior). If Ray Tensing had not been wearing a body camera, it’s likely he would never have been prosecuted. His word would have been taken as truth and he’d continue to patrol the urban streets of Cincinnati, oppressing and abusing blacks. This is the point I was trying to make in my previous blog post and the point the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been making: Just because a white police officer says something is true, does not make it true. They should not be above the law. This in no way means that all white cops are liars–to make that jump is illogical and entirely counter-productive.
Police officers are going to continue killing unarmed black men. Sometimes these will be justified acts in the line of duty, sometimes they will not be. When it is not, these police officers need to go to jail for murder, period. Body cameras and other intentional efforts will make a huge difference in ensuring justice is served. These cameras also protect the word of police officers when they are telling the truth.
3. Saying that black lives matter in no way implies that police lives don’t or that white lives don’t or that all lives don’t or that police aren’t appreciated.
Black lives have consistently not mattered in American society for almost all of our history. This historical fact should be able to be pointed out for the wrong that it is without having to declare that white lives also matter or that police lives also matter or that good police officers are appreciated. It’s like apples and oranges.
#BlackLivesMatter isn’t meant to bring attention to blacks over and above other groups, it’s meant to give dignity to a group that has consistently had their dignity stripped from them.
Should we make a point to appreciate our police officers? Yes. Just as we should our firemen and our teachers and our military service men and women. But if someone does a blog post on black lives mattering, they also don’t need to touch all of these other bases, as if leaving someone out somehow means something derogatory toward that group.
It can’t be said in any more helpful terms than James said it in the comment thread of my original post about Dubose’s death:
4. White people tend to see things individualistically and ahistorically, while black people tend to see things communally and with history behind it.
Take the Baltimore riots for example. White people see a bunch of young “thugs” being violent and disorderly. Black people see a young generation of African Americans fed up with having no voice (a.k.a. whites being in almost all of the positions of power) and tired of taking it anymore (after generation after generation of their parents and grandparents having no voice).
In Ferguson, white people see one troubled teen in Michael Brown who was shoplifting and who may have charged at a police officer, whom they feel likely got what he deserved. Black people see an unarmed black man who witnesses say had his arms up saying “Don’t shoot,” get gunned down by a white police officer…just like they saw throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s…or Rodney King in 1991…or any number of violent run ins with police in their own lives or their family members’ lives.
There is a deeply engrained subconscious fear that many white people have of black men. For some, it goes further than fear and into full blown prejudice and racism (and I understand that it can be argued that fear and prejudice are the same things). This fear (and prejudice) leads to SOME (NOT ALL) white police officers to be trigger happy when in an altercation with a black man. This type of thinking must end once and for all, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement is pushing for that. If Tamir Rice wasn’t black, it’s very doubtful he would have been shot and killed. This is simply reality, and this reality must change.
There is a reason that black parents have to instruct their children, especially their sons, how to live in white society without being killed by police. Yes, this is a regular conversation in black households. And it goes much much further than the simple, naive, arrogant expression I hear whites say online over and over again, “If they didn’t break the law, this wouldn’t happen.” This is simply reality, and this reality must change.
These memories don’t go away folks. And when an incident like Ferguson or Trayvon Martin hits the news, it brings all of these memories back in a flood.
As if black lives don’t matter.
We as white folks need to see the modern events surrounding race in the light of our history, history that is not divorced from the present but is interconnected with it and has been what has shaped it. If we don’t, and if we don’t validate this history, we invalidate our black brothers and sisters altogether because this is their story and their communal identity.
If there were a history of black men killing white police officers and not being prosecuted for it, those comparisons could be justified. But as is, replying to #BlackLivesMatter with things like #AllLivesMatter, #PoliceLivesMatter (#BlueLivesMatter), or #WhiteLivesMatter is disrespectful, unloving and in general, just misses the point.
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