The Black Lives Matter Movement is founded on a true and well-documented premise: young African-Americans are disproportionately gunned down by law enforcement. The breadth of crime statistics have long supported this notion, showing that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts. There is also evidence that black victims of police shootings are more likely to be unarmed. In 2015 alone, a staggering 32% of black people killed by police were unarmed, compared to only 15% of white people killed by police.Despite the evidence, the Black Lives Matter movement- and the very need for such a movement- remains a controversial topic.
Some critics of Black Lives Matter outright refuse to acknowledge that law enforcement may be prone to racial bias. These people instead imagine that we live in a post-racial society, where race could not play a factor in a cop’s decision making. Such a viewpoint is incredibly naive in light of our country’s long history with racially-biased law enforcement.These people are probably the minority of Black Lives Matter Movement’s critics.
The majority consist of those who make an even more damaging argument. They contend that activists should concern themselves with the high homicide rates in urban inner cities, rather than issues of police brutality. People making this argument attempt to use urban violence as justification for police brutality. Their argument is the equivalent of saying, “You should not care if police kill you, because you kill each other anyway”.
A quote from a recent opinion piece, titled “Black Lives Matter– but Reality Not So Much” explains the idea more fully:
The reality is that the Michael Browns are a much bigger threat to black lives than are the police. “Every year, the casualty count of black-on-black crime is twice that of the death toll of 9/11,” wrote former New York City police detective Edward Conlon in a Journal essay on Saturday. “I don’t understand how a movement called ‘Black Lives Matter’ can ignore the leading cause of death among young black men in the U.S., which is homicide by their peers.”
This argument, quoted and advanced by author Jason L. Riley, is entirely unreasonable. Firstly, people are working to curb the homicide rates in the black community. Leader and activist Rev. Al Sharpton just recently travelled to Chicago to speak about the intolerable levels of violence. He has spoken out against street violence for years, and often visits local communities around the country. He is just one of many Black activists working on this issue. There are community groups dedicated to stopping urban violence in almost every major American city. Notwithstanding these efforts, there are clear differences between inner-city violence and police brutality.
When a black person kills another black person, they are sentenced to prison for the crime. There is no breakdown in the justice system attributed to freeing young black murderers. The same cannot be said for white police officers who kill unarmed black citizens. We can discuss the social ills of urban violence, but we need to separately address the systemic injustice that isolates police officers from prosecution and conviction.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, we should actually openly hold police officers to a higher standard than the one to which we hold ordinary people. An ordinary person, living in an environment that is violent, poor, and abject of hope, may unfortunately fall victim to the lure of crime, or the senselessness of committing gun violence. This is not inevitably true, but it remains a fact in our current world. But a police officer, trained and acting in his duty under government authority, should follow the law at all times. In other words, a police officer cannot use the negative behaviors of the environment he patrols to justify his own missteps. And neither should we.
In his post, Riley facetiously says, “It’s about holding whites to a higher standard than the young black men in these neighborhoods hold each other to.” He should clarify to say, white police officers. This is not an unreasonable proposition. Yes, we should absolutely hold white police officers to a higher standard than the young urban poor– those same people whose behavior we are bemoaning.
This is not to say that Black Lives Matter is the perfect movement. It lacks central leadership, the legislative power of past social movements, and it may be too focused on social media. But you cannot argue with its basic premise: all people, including black people, deserve to not have their lives unnecessarily taken by the police. This is simply a human right.
The key issues here are justice and accountability. When you have multiple cops firing hundreds of rounds into an unarmed person’s car, someone should face consequences. When you have a 12 year old boy shot by a cop while playing at the park, someone should face consequences. And these are just two examples from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, in recent years. If cops were actually held accountable for using excessive force, I imagine that police brutality would be a far less pervasive issue.
The tragic events that we read about in the news, like the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Oscar Grant, happen everyday in neighborhoods across the country. Accepting that this injustice exists, and refusing to continue making excuses for it to keep happening, are the first steps toward creating positive change. Black Lives Matter has brought attention to an ugly and unjust truth about our country. The only way to stop the long pattern of police brutality against African-Americans is to finally hold police officers accountable when they use unreasonable force.