It all began in Ferguson.
On Aug. 9, 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot black teenager Michael Brown. The details of the incident were unclear; some witnesses claimed that Wilson had shot Brown in the back as he was running away, others that the officer shot him in self-defense. Multiple independent investigations into the incident yielded inconclusive or even conflicting findings.
To this day, the incident remains shrouded in mystery. The truth is that, with the exception of those who saw the incident occur in person, we don’t know exactly what happened and we never will. The only certainty is that a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black man, and for many, that was enough.
Riots erupted in Ferguson that took weeks to quell. A nationwide wave of protests (some peaceful, others not) broke out. For a brief moment in time, the entire country shifted its gaze to a small town in Missouri that most had never heard of before. The news was dominated by story after story on little Ferguson, Missouri. Pundit after pundit weighed in, offering their opinions on the increasingly controversial matter of possible racism among police.
Eventually, the debate outgrew Ferguson. Now the news was no longer dominated by the unfortunate case of Michael Brown, but by those of Eric Garner of Staten Island, Freddie Gray of Baltimore, Tamir Rice of Cleveland, and a host of other black people killed by white policemen.
Out of this milieu, the activist group known as Black Lives Matter emerged.
Over the course of its tenure in the public eye, Black Lives Matter has proven itself to be an organization that, though strident and outspoken, is characterized by a lack of direction, coherent vision or willingness to engage in discussion. On the contrary, Black Lives Matter seems to shun reasonable argumentation and discussion at every turn. Take this video of a Black Lives Matter protest filmed in the Dartmouth library. No arguments are made and no discussion is held (which is particularly ironic considering the venue), but instead the rather obvious truism “black lives matter” is chanted incessantly.
No one (with the possible exception of a very tiny minority) believes that black lives don’t matter, and even if they do, then how does chanting it over and over change anybody’s minds? Such protest does not lead to a productive discussion. It’s at best mildly annoying and at worst slightly antagonizing, but either way it’s not helpful.
Thankfully, Black Lives Matter protests have been largely peaceful, but on occasion they have turned destructive. In Baltimore, for example, buildings were burned, police cars were destroyed and police officers were pelted with rocks by protesters.
Just this past weekend in Minneapolis, protesters attacked police officers with bricks, rocks, chunks of concrete, fireworks and molotov cocktails. Twenty-seven officers were injured. And of course, we’ve all heard about the tragic shooting of 10 police officers in Dallas by a man who pledged his allegiance to Black Lives Matter. Make no mistake; this movement’s divisiveness has become toxic, and I fear we’re only beginning to feel its consequences.
But the other side of this debate is, to my way of thinking, equally distasteful.
Generally, those who have taken a strong position against Black Lives Matter have not done so for the reasons I have elaborated above. Instead they have proposed reasons that, in my view, range from hopelessly naïve to heartlessly insensitive. For example, former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani recently weighed in on Black Lives Matter. Giuliani argues that black parents should “teach [their] children to be respectful to the police,” and that the phrase “black lives matter” is “inherently racist.”
No. No it’s not. Affirming the inherent dignity of human life is not racist. That’s not to say that everything done in the name of Black Lives Matter is good (it doesn’t justify the murder of police officers for example), but the core insight is undeniably true.
The fact is that, while I have some serious objections to the movement known as Black Lives Matter, the protestors have a reason for their actions. It is not a coincidence that black people are killed by police in alarming numbers when compared to white people. According to the Washington Post, though black people make up only 13 percent of the population, they account for 26 percent of people killed by police officers. That’s a disturbing disparity. This is not something black people have made up. The problem is all too real.
This is not to say, however, that it justifies attacking or killing police officers; such forms of violent retribution are neither morally justifiable nor practically effective. Observe the historical record: the two great champions of the rights of black people during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s were Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Malcolm X was a proponent of black separatism, and (like Black Lives Matter) believed that black people should not work through established political channels like the courts and Congress. In fact, he strongly discouraged black people from voting because it involved participating in the white establishment. Malcolm X’s movement was fundamentally divisive; he spent his life fighting against unity between white and black people.
Martin Luther King, on the other hand, led a movement which was diametrically opposed to divisiveness.
It saw the problem of racism in America as one that is overcome by uniting white and black Americans through their common humanity.
It was a movement based in love and forgiveness, not hate and bitterness, and it was the movement that history remembers more fondly. Eventually, King’s vision was realized; schools were integrated, Congress passed legislation protecting the right of black Americans to vote and Jim Crow was abolished. Ultimately it was not the dividers who achieved victory, but the uniters.
Unfortunately, Black Lives Matter is looking increasingly like Malcolm X’s brand of activism rather than King’s. More and more, it seems determined to drive people apart rather than pull them together. The Dallas shooting was the most recent manifestation of this phenomenon, but I fear that the worst is yet to come. I’m not by any means saying that we should ignore police shootings of black people, but I am saying that if we want these shootings to stop, we need to act through the appropriate channels.
If you’re upset about the number of black people being shot by police, the answer is not to make police officers angry and afraid by assaulting them, but rather to assess what is causing the problem and address it by whatever official channel makes the most sense, whether that be congressional legislation, amending police policy, etc., but one thing we cannot continue to do is allow the toxicity of this debate to grow any further. Its consequences have already been deadly.