Faculty Forum - Featured Post Posted on Monday, August 01, 2016

Black vs. Blue : Worlds Apart?

Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera famously suggested that Trayvon Martin was complicit in his own death because he was wearing a hoodie. The Blue Lives Matter movement sells a hoodie with their logo on it. These examples highlight the fact that the social meaning of a symbol – in this case, a hoodie – depends on who is wearing it. But events are not symbols, and the lived realities of Black or Blue perspectives meet forcefully during a traffic stop. My concern is that even this reality is too often treated as merely a matter of interpretation.

The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM1) presents an image of the nation as racially divided, which it is for complex reasons stated elsewhere in this series. They perceive police violence in black communities as part of a very long history of institutional oppression. Such a history is real, whether or not one sees contemporary law enforcement as one more instance of this oppression. Activists and supporters of the movement claim that in shootings and in a myriad of other situations, the United States does not value black lives as much as others’. The BLM1 message targets various groups and institutions: law enforcement officials who might be too quick to use violence, the media who might treat black deaths as inevitable rather than tragic, and racists who say that these victims were responsible for their own deaths.

In contrast, many police defenders look at different social patterns such as rates of violent crimes and levels of gun ownership. They emphasize that the police have an obligation to use deadly force when they feel that a situation is dangerous. These commentators describe the risk of violence and death for police during routine work, such as traffic stops, as justification for applying deadly force. In short, Black Lives Matter and police defenders view the same reality of events from multiple perspectives.

And then there is the Blue Lives Matter movement (BLM2). This movement describes the police as a minority group facing daily discrimination. Several states have adopted or are considering Blue Lives Matter bills to define violence against a police officer as a hate crime. They use the phrase “though I walk through the valley of death” to describe policing. This group is not organized around a different interpretation of the social problem represented by police shootings, like BLM1 and police defenders; rather, the Blue Lives Matter movement presents an entirely different reality. In this version, the police are the victims, even – or especially – when someone else ends up dead.

Proponents of the BLM2 are among those who watch a horrifying video of an unarmed man shot in the back while lying on the ground in custody, and suggest that maybe he made a move that we can’t see on the video. “Officers could be heard saying he had a gun. … I guess in your world the officers should have waited to be shot before shooting him,” wrote one reader defending the recent shooting of Alton Sterling, who was already restrained by police and whose hands were not near the pocket where his gun was found. “He was reaching into his pocket,” many writers have claimed  of Philando Castile, who had been ordered to show his identification and was reaching for his wallet to comply. “If you are unaware that a gun pointing at you is a toy and you have the means of defending yourself, … you will pull the trigger,” another commenter wrote after the shooters of Tamir Rice were acquitted, even though the police in this case never claimed that anything had been pointed at them.

These distant observer comments are not offering the familiar “you weren’t there so you don’t know the facts” defense. They are reappropriating a sequence of events in response to clear documentation that shows otherwise.

This amounts to  a socially constructed denial of reality.

So, what exactly is the BLM2 movement and its supporters organized against? In many public discussions, they appear to see themselves as part of a stable, majority-white society under constant threat from the (not-so-white) forces of chaos all around them. In this “browning world”, the police hold the domestic monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, which is the only thing keeping the  lawlessness at bay. The existence of the BLM1 threatens that sense of legitimacy. The BLM2 fear, then, is not that a few, or a few hundred, innocents might be killed. Rather, they fear that the police might stop shooting people and the darkness will prevail. The details of any one shooting event are less important to this movement than the need to stop people from questioning the right – or need – of police to shoot with impunity

To equate the Blue Lives Matter and the Black Lives Matter movements as merely different interpretations of a single set of events is a grave mistake. It implies that they simply perceive the same real events from different angles. However, it’s clear that they actually have entirely different interpretations of reality: one movement questions the shooting of innocent people, and the other doesn’t see innocent people in the first place.

Let us, my fellow white observers, not be complicit in this false equivalency.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on race and law enforcement. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Howard Lune is an associate professor of sociology and the director of the Graduate Social Research Program at Hunter College. The majority of his research concerns the efforts by relatively marginal groups to organize for greater political, social and/or economic power.