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A mural in memory of Alton Sterling, who was shot several times at close range by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5, 2016. W. Clarke/Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

The backlash against Black Lives Matter is just more evidence of injustice

This article is the last in the Black Lives Matter Everywhere series, a collaboration between The Conversation, the Sydney Democracy Network and the Sydney Peace Foundation. To mark the presentation of the 2017 Sydney Peace Prize to the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the authors reflect on the roots of and responses to a movement that has re-ignited a global conversation about racism. The prize will be presented on November 2 (tickets here).

In White-dominated societies, nearly any demand for equality by people of colour is met by a backlash couched in terms of White victimhood. This has been as true for Black Lives Matter as it was for the civil rights movement.

Just as Black Lives Matter went global, so did the backlash.

One popular (and self-serving) theory holds that White identity politics is merely a response to movements like Black Lives Matter. But this gets the story backwards. Black Lives Matter is a response to White supremacy. The anger harnessed by figures like Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani is the anger of White privilege forced to defend itself.

All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” are two of the most prominent rhetorical manifestations of the backlash. Both played major roles in the media coverage of and political response to Black Lives Matter.

All Lives Matter

The hashtag and slogan “All Lives Matter” is a declaration of “colourblindness”, which Ian Haney-Lopez describes as “the dominant etiquette around race” today. As is so often the case when it comes to race, liberal rhetoric serves conservative ends.

“All Lives Matter” erases a long past and present of systemic inequality in the US. It represents a refusal to acknowledge that the state does not value all lives in the same way. It reduces the problem of racism to individual prejudice and casts African-Americans as aggressors against a colourblind post-civil rights order in which White people no longer “see race”.

This kind of rhetoric is hardly new, as we learn from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book Racism Without Racists. It is the most up-to-date articulation of how most White people view racism (as a rare, archaic and unfortunate psychological disposition) as opposed to how most people of colour see it (as institutionalised and systemic).

Under the White understanding, talking about systemic racism is itself racist, because it conjures into existence “racial divides” that are invisible to Whites who believe themselves to be free of prejudice.

There is no better example of this than Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is a famous proponent of “stop and frisk” policing and a longtime master of backlash politics. He told CNN Black Lives Matter is “inherently racist” because “it divides us … All lives matter: White lives, Black lives, all lives.”

Giuliani went on to say:

Black Lives Matter never protests when every 14 hours someone is killed in Chicago, probably 70-80% of the time by a Black person. Where are they then? Where are they when a young Black child is killed?

This argument is a popular one in backlash politics. It holds that Black Lives Matter only cares about Black life when White people are responsible for taking it, thus ignoring and displacing Black responsibility for violence in Black communities.

In November 2015, Donald Trump tweeted an infographic purporting to show that Blacks were responsible for 97% of murders of Blacks and 82% of murders of Whites. Both “statistics” are wrong, the latter monstrously so: African-Americans accounted for about 15% of murders of Whites, according to FBI data.

This twisted tribal accounting deliberately obscures Black Lives Matter’s critique of violence, inequality and failings at all levels of the criminal justice system. Like the slogan “All Lives Matter”, it is a way of changing the subject.

It also exposes the myths of colourblind rhetoric. Many White people are more than happy to “see colour” when assigning blame for Black deaths, and to treat that as the end of the issue.

Like many White people, Donald Trump is only happy to ‘see colour’ when assigning blame to the black community.

“All Lives Matter” has not always served as the powerful rebuke of Black Lives Matter that the backlash intends. One strategy by online activists has been to refuse to acknowledge the disingenuous binary of “Black” and “all”.

Nikita Carney notes in a study of the #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter hashtags that some Black Twitter users simply used both when calling for protests against police violence, effectively disarming the dishonest critique implied by All Lives Matter.

Alicia Garza, one of the creators of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, explained in 2014 how Black lives mattering is a precondition for all lives mattering:

Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important – it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide-reaching and transformative for society as a whole.

When we are able to end the hyper-criminalisation and sexualisation of Black people and end the poverty, control and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free. When Black people get free, everybody gets free.

Blue Lives Matter

While campaigning for the presidency in late 2015, Trump said that if elected he would use an executive order to make the death penalty mandatory for anyone who killed a police officer. The US president has no such authority, but Trump was attuned to the politics of the backlash.

The idea of a Black Lives Matter-inspired “war on cops” plays a powerful role in the backlash imagination. In 2014 and 2016, there were three ambush murders of multiple officers in New York, Baton Rouge and Dallas. Each was committed by a different lone gunman who sought revenge against police for their violence against Black communities.

These atrocities received blanket media coverage and became a major theme of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke opened his speech by declaring that “blue lives matter”, blaming Black Lives Matter for “the collapse of social order”.

Giuliani, speaking shortly afterwards, claimed that most Americans do not feel safe and “they fear for our police officers who are being targeted”.

In Australia, The Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine blamed Black Lives Matter for the killing of an unarmed Australian woman in Minnesota by a police officer in July this year.

Devine claimed police were “more prone to make tragic mistakes” because they felt under siege following a “wave of ambushes and assassinations” incited by Black Lives Matter. She also asserted, baselessly, that “their entire movement is built on a lie” and that “Black Americans are more likely to kill cops than be killed by cops”.

In fact, it is estimated police killed more than four times as many Black Americans last year as the other way round. There is no evidence of a resurgent “war on police”.

In 2016, 64 officers were shot dead, a much-remarked jump from 41 in 2015. But this remains within the average range of police deaths for the last ten years, which itself represents a steep drop from previous decades. An average of 115 were murdered each year in the 1970s, when the population was two-thirds what it is now. So far in 2017, 36 officers have been shot dead.

It is far harder to say whether killings by police are rising or falling, because no reliable data have been kept until recently. Thousands of law enforcement agencies participate in the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, but according to Politifact “just a small fraction of them willingly provide data on deadly force and justifiable homicides within their departments”.

This has led to recent data collection efforts by NGOs and media outlets, but without trustworthy numbers from previous years to allow for historical comparison. “The Counted”, a project by The Guardian, found police killed 1,093 people in 2016, 266 of them African-American.

Black Lives Matter draws attention not just to police violence, but to the many deep imbalances in how the state values human life. Antrell Williams/flickr

Nonetheless, the Blue Lives Matter backlash has borne fruit. According to a Huffington Post report, 33 “Blue Lives Matter” bills have been introduced in 14 states in 2017, following 15 such bills in 2016. The purpose of these bills is to extend hate crime protections to members of law enforcement, thus increasing penalties for crimes committed against them.

Most of these bills have failed, but they have become law in Louisiana and Kentucky. A similar bill went into the committee stage in South Carolina, which doesn’t have a hate crimes statute and which automatically puts the death penalty on the table for the murder of police officers.

Such laws are profoundly unnecessary, which is why most don’t become laws. Penalties in all 50 states are already more severe for crimes committed against law enforcement officers.

However, Blue Lives Matter bills serve a political purpose. They suggest that members of racial minorities are somehow more “protected” than police officers, who are the real victims.

When Louisiana’s law was signed, a Blue Lives Matter national spokesman said it was “important symbolically because it advises there is a value to the lives of police officers”.

Bestowing the status of a victim class on police is a grotesque distortion of reality and a symptom of structural violence. Police do a dangerous job, but there has never been any question that their lives matter. Criminal justice is never pursued more vigorously than when a police officer is killed.

Slain police officers deserve to be mourned. But those slain by police officers deserve at least to be counted. Black Lives Matter draws attention not just to police violence, but to the many deep imbalances in how the state values human life.

You can read other articles in the series here.

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