Blue lives have always mattered

Edited by Niyah Dantzler ’18

This summer, in the state of “We Swear We’re Not as Racist as the American South” New York, the Staten Island Yankees-Brooklyn Cyclones baseball game was the designated venue for “Blue Lives Matter Day.” At this family-friendly outing, Blue Lives Matter merchandise was distributed, the families of fallen officers were recognized, and the proclaimed heroes, otherwise known as the NYPD were celebrated. As the marketing director of the event asserted, this occasion was really a chance to support those in need. This date was also the one year anniversary of the police killing of Michael Brown (an “unfortunate, unforeseen coincidence,” as would later be claimed).

Blue Lives Matter -yes, an intentional corollary of Black Lives Matter — is a campaign and non-profit organization that is partially devoted to raising money for police families in times of need. No one is here to argue that supporting these individuals is not just and admirable in principle. “It’s not the cause that is a slap in the face to me and Mike Brown’s family — it’s the slogan. That slogan stands for every single person that has been lost to police and gotten no justice. It’s a slap in the face to everything that Black Lives Matter stands for,” proclaimed Erica Garner, whose father, if you recall, was suffocated in the same borough by the same fraternal order that the event honored. On the Blue Lives Matter webpage, you can find the organization’s public intentions under “About Us”: “Police lives these days are very difficult and stressful. Having support makes daily life as a Police officer much easier and reminds all of us why we suit up and strap on our gun-belts on a daily basis.” Am I the only one who reads that and is a little confused at the slightly random, seemingly threatening allusion to guns? Probably not. Was I surprised when I saw, under the website’s “Proud Sponsors”, that the very first establishment is a deli I frequent for bagels in the white, working class, Long Island community that neighbors my hometown? Not really.

As it turns out, I come from an area where the majority demographic feels a lot more comfortable with Blue than they do with Black. Before Blue Lives Matter, the same community gravitated towards All Lives Matter, a contradictory dichotomy that I’m not sure I need to explain. The logic behind the Blue Lives Matter support makes sense to me; a lot of people in the community have police presence in their families, a lot of people don’t have minority presence in their social circles because despite the ethnic diversity of our county, residential segregation does a good job of making the experiences of neighbors invisible. My sympathy for this side-taking doesn’t run too deep, however. When a Facebook friend changes their profile picture to the blue ribbon symbolic of this campaign, it’s not genuinely about supporting officers in a time of unfortunate circumstances. While there are commendable people and organizations who do exactly that, Blue Lives Matter is just a defensive riposte to Black Lives Matter, and, as Monica Weymouth of Philadelphia Magazine explains, uses “an inflammatory slogan that occupies that strange, uncomfortable space between threatened and threatening.”

To reiterate; Blue Lives Matter is just All Lives Matter, with a little intimidation thrown in.

Aside from serving as an adversary to the anti-police brutality movement, the campaign draws attention to the fact that there is a vocalized sentiment of legitimate wrongdoing against police officers on the streets and in the media. If you watch Fox News, you’ll recognize this as the War on Cops. Where exactly is this ideology coming from? As a young woman of color emotionally invested in the progress of the Black Lives Matter movement and the safety of my loved ones targeted by police, I realize that I do have a bias against the possibility that there may be some kind of epidemic of mistreatment against law enforcement. So I like to refer to hard statistical facts to keep me grounded.

As we now know, black men are 6% of the American population but make up 40% of the unarmed victims killed by law enforcement. So far in 2015, at least 161 unarmed citizens have been killed, a large percentage of whom are black men, women, (especially trans women and men), and children. That the violence against these people is systemic, racially charged, and disproportional is not disputable.

Law enforcement has no incentive to publish how many unarmed citizen deaths their department has been responsible for each year, so it’s fair to say that these numbers are an underestimation. What they do keep detailed tabs on, however, is how many police officers die in the line of duty. In the same amount of time, 27 police officers have died as a result of gun violence.  What that means is today, if you are a police officer, you are almost ten times less likely to get killed by firearms fire than you were in the 1970s. Aside from gun violence, automobile accidents have taken police lives, as well as suicide. Though suicide isn’t disproportionately high compared to other professions, it’s worth noting that black officers are 2.55% more likely than their white colleagues to take their own lives. Why do we rarely talk about black policemen? Men like Christopher Owens, an ex-police officer who served for over 10 years on the force in Providence, RI and was later violently beaten along with his son by fellow officers when mistaken for a black criminal in 2012. As we put policing in the context of the most dangerous jobs in America, even I was surprised that being a law enforcer couldn’t be found in the Top 10. (This list consisted of primarily labor occupations. In 2013, looking at only Latino workers in construction, 817 died while at work. I digress.) Since police officers are the safest they have been in 40 years, why does Blue Lives Matter suggest that officers need to “raise war in the streets?”*.

The statement “Black Lives Matter” is a response to the unique injustice and social conditions that accompany the inherently political identity of being black in a system of enduring white supremacy. Black lives didn’t matter when America instituted slavery. Black lives didn’t matter when segregation was enforced. Black lives didn’t matter throughout the War on Drugs. Black lives continue not to matter in a state of mass incarceration, endless police brutality, and unequal access to resources. Antithetically, police lives have always mattered, and the state makes sure we know this. Every fallen officer is honored with an official memorial ceremony, following strict traditional protocol, accompanied by media attention, often a street named after him or her, and special tributes invoking the country’s flag. This is not a critique of the way in which we commemorate the lives of fallen officers, but of the ways in which we simultaneously dehumanize, disregard, and disrespect the lives of black Americans.

No unjust killing of a police officer should be taken lightly, but the rhetoric of a War on Cops does nothing but increase the paranoia that manifests in racial polarity and violence. While we cannot be lenient on individual acts of violence, it’s important to also recognize that police are only one part of a scapegoating system for the greater will of hegemonic American society, where high racial capital is enjoyed as the result of a judicial system positioned against already-marginalized masses.  It should not have to be explained that life is not a zero sum game, in which valuing black lives would somehow insinuate the devaluing of police lives. Criminal violence against officers and police violence against black citizens are simply not comparable, and to continue to silence black voices by proposing such a comparison with the very existence of Blue Lives Matter only further perpetuates the violence at hand.

*from the official Blue Lives Matter Facebook Group description.

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