Do we need to assert that Blue Lives Matter? In the wake of the killing of five Dallas police officers Thursday, it might seem so. President Obama called the shooting “vicious, calculated and despicable.” The New York Post proclaimed “Civil War” on its cover. In the same week when thousands of us took to the streets to once again insist that Black Lives Matter, events in Dallas will force a number of false equivalences to be drawn. First among them is that if we say Black Lives Matter, we must say in the same breath Blue Lives Matter.
I won’t say Blue Lives Matter, because it does not need to be said. We know this because the death of five officers this week provoked an immediate response from the president, as did the assassination of two NYPD officers in 2014. That’s what mattering looks like. While the president’s remarks earlier in the week on the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were moving, dozens of unarmed black men killed by cop go without presidential comment. For instance, U.S. police killed more than 100 unarmed black men last year alone. The fact that there are too many such killings for Obama to speak to individually? That’s what not mattering looks like in a society.
There was never any doubt about the mattering of cops’ lives in this country. To say Blue Lives Matter is to falsely assert that the cops’ lives are undervalued and systematically discarded. They are not — no life should be — and the shootings in Dallas do not change that fact.
Five police deaths provoke cries of “Civil War,” but hundreds of black deaths are just the “tragic” normal.
And that is why we continue to shout “Black Lives Matter” — the statement contains in itself the recognition that it very much still needs to be said.
It’s also relevant that it has consistently taken the visceral and visual representation of black death — Emmett Till’s broken corpse in the open casket his mother demanded, Mike Brown’s body in the street, Philando Castile bleeding out onto his whiteT-shirt — to prompt popular and media outrage. Black civilian bodies get humanized only through death. It doesn’t take a photo or video of a killed cop to provoke outcry. That mattering doesn’t demand brutal spectacular cues.
Which is not to delegitimize growing fears among police ranks that they will become targets by virtue of their profession, their uniform. Dallas shows the validity of these concerns. Yet it remains the case that policing does not even rank in the ten most dangerous jobs, according to a 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Fisherman, farmers and, above all, loggers are more likely to die on the job, and police are, according to the same statistics, more likely to commit suicide than be killed by a criminal. While cops may have reasons for increased concern, this does not deserve a movement. There remain no grounds at all to call police officers a persecuted minority, nor to equate the oppression of black life with that of police in America.
The Dallas shooting will no doubt buoy ongoing efforts by police departments and representatives around the country to see officers officially recognized as a persecuted minority. In May, Louisiana Gov. Jon Edwards passed a Blue Lives Matter bill, which renders targeting an officer a hate crime. Last year, the 300,000-member National Fraternal Order of Police union ask Congress to include police officers under its hate-crime statute as a protected minority. On Capitol Hill, the House and Senate have both introduced a “Thin Blue Line Act,” which would strengthen penalties for attacks on law enforcement.
Numerous layers of bad thought undergird these initiatives. For one, they only serve to make what is already de facto the case in our criminal-justice system the de jure case, too. Long before Blue Lives Matter entered the rhetoric, numerous state houses had specific, harsher sentencing mandates on their books for cop killers. New York’s minimum sentence for the murder of a police officer has been life in prison for over a decade. To kill a cop is already a criminal-justice mark of Cain.
By comparison, for example, Peter Liang was the first NYPD officer to be convicted for an on-duty killing in the last ten years. He shot unarmed black man Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn project housing stairwell, after he had his gun drawn because a stairwell light was out in the residential block he was patrolling. He had not been called to the scene of a crime. He won’t spend a day in jail; his manslaughter conviction was accorded a sentence of five years’ probation.
I’m not equating the intentional assassination of police officers with the (regular) killing of black people by cops. I don’t believe most cops are hunting down black people — but I also don’t believe murderous racist intention is necessary to make an execution a brutal, racist act. There are not very many people hunting down cops. Cops’ lives are already valorized; it costs everything to take one. For a cop to take a black life, in criminal-justice currency, costs nothing at all. This, again, is what mattering does and does not look like.
The other flawed logic driving Blue Lives Matter initiatives is the equation of a uniform with a skin color — only one of which you can take off. The police uniform is accorded unique authority, impunity and power. Black skin is marked with the opposite.
We don’t need a Blue Lives Matter movement to assert that cops’ lives matter — that fact is as established in this country as white supremacy.
Watch President Obama’s emotional address on Dallas police shooting.