Why #BlackLivesMatter matters more than ever

July 13, 2016

Politicians and the media are trying to downplay Black Lives Matter protests--but it's more important than ever to build the struggle against racism and police brutality.

BLUE LIVES matter: That was the relentless message from America's political leaders and the media establishment after the shootings in Dallas that left five police officers dead.

But that message is a bitter pill to those who recognize it is being used to sideline and silence a movement demanding justice for victims of police murder after two more killings of Black men, captured on video, became international news.

The renewed protests following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota--the largest national surge of anti-police violence activism in over a year--represent a much-needed return to the streets.

But those who are standing up for justice today will face a backlash.

In the coming days and weeks, the chorus of official voices calling for "respectful dialogue" will be used to drown out our cries for justice and accountability. The celebration of police officers who "put their lives on the line" will be used to downplay the injustice of a system built on racism, repression and violence. Calls for the Black Lives Matter movement to police itself will be used to turn attention away from the epidemic of police violence.

Marching to remember Alton Sterling and Philando Castille in Seattle
Marching to remember Alton Sterling and Philando Castille in Seattle (Rick Berry)

Those who identify with the Black Lives Matter movement--still young, diverse and largely unformed--must insist on independence from the political forces that want to opportunistically mute and exploit it. The revived protests of today have to become the stepping-stones to organizing a broader challenge to the system that perpetuates violence, repression and racism.

THE "LEADER of the free world" himself set the tone for what's to come after Dallas.

Barack Obama, along with former President George W. Bush, personally traveled to Dallas to attend the funerals of the officers killed by African American veteran Micah Johnson during a Black Lives Matter protest.

So our first question is: Where was Obama during the series of funerals for the victims of police--the Mike Browns, the Eric Garners, the Sandra Blands, Freddie Greys, Ramarley Grahams, Tamir Rices, Rekia Boyds?

Obama and other politicians made much of the "sacrifice" of the Dallas officers, but failed to point out that police weren't Johnson's only victims. Like Shetamia Taylor, a 37-year-old African American mother, who was shot in the leg during Johnson's rampage as she attempted to shield her four sons from the bullets. She was at the Dallas protest with her sons because, according to her sister, "[s]he's got four boys who she just wants to be able to be peacefully out here in the world."

The reaction to Dallas showed in stark terms the double standard applied to the use of violence in U.S. society: When cops are caught, time and again, engaging in acts of racist brutality and even cold-blooded murder, they're singled out as isolated "bad apples." But Johnson's shooting rampage in Dallas is being used to smear the Black Lives Matter movement--prompting cynical calls for its restraint by those who would rather it disappear entirely.

The most unhinged may have been TheBlaze TV network host Tomi Lahren, who tweeted, "Meet the new KKK, they call themselves 'Black Lives Matter' but make no mistake their goals are far from equality."

But there were plenty more on that bandwagon--including, predictably, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), an organization that has never failed to manufacture excuses for cops who use deadly force against unarmed people.

The FOP called on Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate the Dallas killings as a hate crime. Its attitude was echoed by none other than Barack Obama, who referred to the shootings as a "hate crime" in a meeting with the FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco.

Fortunately, the slanders being leveled at Black Lives Matter were confronted by hundreds--and, in many cases, thousands--of people who took to the streets in Oakland and San Francisco, in Los Angeles, in Cincinnati and New York and many more cities. Everywhere, protesters--many of them young and inexperienced at activism--were determined to stand up in defiance of the idea that the movement should accept collective guilt for Johnson's killing spree.

AT A press conference before traveling to Dallas, Barack Obama said, "When we start suggesting that somehow there is this enormous polarization and we're back to the situation in the 1960s--that's just not true. You're not seeing riots, and you're not seeing police going after people who are protesting peacefully."


Many people who have taken part in Black Lives Matter struggles--or the Occupy Wall Street movement and others before that--have firsthand experience of "police going after people who are protesting peacefully." The latest example: A police assault on protesters in Baton Rouge this week where the cops used a "long-range acoustical device" to disperse demonstrators.

And just how far removed from "the situation in the 1960s" are we when Philando Castile was apparently pulled over--and subsequently shot and killed--because he had a "wide-set nose" like "people that were involved in a robbery," according to an officer talking on police radio?

Can anyone believe that police don't "go after" the innocent to protect their own after hearing the story of Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed police choking Eric Garner to death in New York City in 2014--and who has been pursued relentlessly by the "justice" system ever since, ending up in prison for four years on minor offenses because he had no choice but to accept a plea deal?

Obama's dismissive words are belied by the grim facts: Police killings, incredibly, are up again this year, with 518 people shot and killed by cops since January 1, according to a Washington Post database.

The responses on offer from Democrats this week have struck so many as lackluster--to put it mildly--because the Democratic Party, while occasionally mouthing platitudes about racial harmony and justice, remains as committed as ever to upholding a state, and the ideological apparatus surrounding it, that thrives on racism and repression.

At a fundamental level, the second party of American capitalism has nothing at all to offer--as Hillary Clinton has made clear.

Clinton can decry the killing of Alton Sterling as a "tragedy" that shows that "something is profoundly wrong" in America, but her amorphous plan of action is to fund "training programs" for police and "develop national guidelines on the use of force by police officers."

The woman who once referred to Black "super-predators" and pushed for mandatory minimum sentencing laws that disproportionately target African Americans now claims that she will end the era of "mass incarceration" that her husband's presidency kicked into high gear.

Equally useless are calls for more "diversity" in police departments. Who can take them seriously when Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who is Black, lectures protesters by saying: "Don't be part of the problem. We're hiring. Get out of the protest line and put an application in. We'll put you in your neighborhood"?

The problem, of course, isn't the number of minority officers on the force, but the racist system they are required to serve.

YET AFTER Dallas, all the pressure that the media and political establishment can mount is directed against those who want to stand up to the epidemic of police violence--to not be "too radical" or "too angry," or demand "too much, too soon."

Once again, Barack Obama played scolder-in-chief. "I would just say that everybody who's concerned about the issue of police shootings or racial bias in the criminal justice system, that maintaining a truthful and serious and respectful tone is going to help mobilize American society to bring about real change," he told reporters on July 10.

The "vast majority" of police, Obama added, "are doing a really good job" and trying to protect people fairly "without racial balance." Tell it to the 87 percent of the nearly 700,000 stop-and-frisks carried out by the NYPD in 2011 who just happened to be Black or Latino.

Obama has plenty of help, though, from a chorus of African American public officials.

In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed responded to the news that Black Lives Matter protesters had blocked a freeway with the exclamation: "Dr. King would never take a freeway." Apparently Reed missed the Academy Award-winning film Selma about King and other civil rights activists marching onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge not once, not twice, but three times.

And, predictably, there was U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a hero of many civil rights battles, including the "Bloody Sunday" police attack on the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, who can now be counted on to stick up for the other side. "I was beaten bloody by police officers," Lewis said this week. "But I never hated them. I said, 'Thank you for your service.'"

Whatever explanation there may be for Lewis' attitude today--and several decades spent as a loyal fixture of the Democratic Party has to be counted as central--he shouldn't be seen as speaking for the civil rights movement that, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," found it intolerable in the face of violence and injustice to be told to "wait."

"ALL LIVES matter," Obama declared this week, speaking of both those killed by police in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, and the officers who died in Dallas.

But a president who oversees the institutions of a fundamentally racist society; who attends funeral for police, but not for the Black victims of police; who calls for people to be "respectful" toward a system that is killing them with poverty, inequality and racist violence--that president is sending a different message: Some lives don't matter as much as others.

As Michelle Alexander, author of the The New Jim Crow, wrote following the killings in Dallas:

I no longer believe that we can "fix" the police, as though the police are anything other than a mirror reflecting back to us the true nature of our democracy. We cannot "fix" the police without a revolution of values and radical change to the basic structure of our society.

Of course important policy changes can and should be made to improve police practices. But if we're serious about having peace officers--rather than a domestic military at war with its own people--we're going to have to get honest with ourselves about who our democracy actually serves and protects...

Fifty years ago, our country was forced to look at itself in the mirror when television stations broadcast Bloody Sunday, the day state troopers and a sheriff's posse brutally attacked civil rights activists marching for voting rights in Selma. Those horrifying images, among others, helped to turn public opinion in support of the civil rights movement.

Perhaps the images we've seen in recent days will make some difference. It's worth remembering, though, that none of the horrifying images from the Jim Crow era would've changed anything if a highly strategic, courageous movement had not existed that was determined to challenge a deeply entrenched system of racial and social control.

This nation was founded on the idea that some lives don't matter. Freedom and justice for some, not all. That's the foundation. Yes, progress has been made in some respects, but it hasn't come easy. There's an unfinished revolution waiting to be won.

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