It seems lots of folks want to blame the Black Lives Matter movement for the murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. In an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke said, “This anti-cop sentiment from this hateful ideology called Black Lives Matter has fueled this rage against the American police officer. I predicted this two years ago.” Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani calls the movement “inherently racist,” claiming “puts a target on the backs of (police officers).”
I don’t know the Sheriff Clarke, who is black, and I don’t know his motives. I know lots of people want to quote him, Mayor Giuliani, and others in order to suppress support for Black Lives Matter. The simple deal is, they could not be more wrong. Ironically, they’re close enough to being right that people will want to believe him. The Black Lives Matter movement does not promote violence, but it does expose it.
Check your history. Black Lives Matter does not cause people to hate police. On the contrary, a long history of violence against minorities has created distrust and resentment toward law enforcement officers. Black Lives Matter began only in 2013. But racialized police violence traces back long before Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. James Baldwin wrote about it in 1966: “the police treat the Negro like a dog.” Living Colour sang about it in 1990: “Police man license to kill.” Los Angeles burned over it in 1992. This problem isn’t new, it’s a lot older than Baldwin, and hushing it up won’t make it go away.
People who don’t value black lives want to hush up the problem.
I’ve seen no one condone the Dallas or Baton Rouge shooters. I’m sure some nutjobs can be found who have done so. And I fear that we’ll see more horrific attacks against law enforcement officers. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter leaders routinely condemn violence against the police. But the root problem behind anti-police violence is a long history of racialized police violence. To elide that fact is to take sides against the victims.
Wicked and confused people ― who can tell one from the other sometimes? ― want to blur the issue. Rather than address racial violence in our criminal justice system, they tell us that Black Lives Matter is a hate movement. No, it’s a dignity movement. Do critics hate the police? No, the movement honors the humanity of police officers. Do they think all police officers are evil? No, but there are problems with policing in this country, and we see them all too often.
Dr. King understood the true roots of violence and injustice, and he wasn’t shy in saying so. He too was accused of fomenting violence. From a jail in Birmingham King addressed those critics:
You assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence.”
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.
Dr. King attested to racism’s violence long before the Civil Rights Movement protests. Protest movements simply call our attention to violence that is already present. The United States is the world’s most violent industrialized nation, after all. Our national roots lie in a quest for freedom on the part of white men who also massacred and enslaved others. That violence continues to course through the national bloodstream. Black Lives Matter is a nonviolent response to a violent society. Misguided people may twist its critique into an excuse for violence, yes. But even more, racist people are looking for reasons to call the movement violent ― just like racists blamed Dr. King for their own violence long, long ago. Don’t let ‘em fool you.