I hate obnoxiously long posts. So, I apologize for this one.
Earlier this summer, a few gun forum regulars urged me to weigh in on a pretty contentious online back-and-forth about Black Lives Matter. I admit I was hesitant. It’s a touchy subject. Opinions run deep, and so do emotions. I knew that with the slightest unsavory turn of phrase, I’d get crucified. It’s very easy to crucify people on the internet, especially if you post under a catchy alias with a random image of not-you as your profile photo. I started typing out my little two-cents on that forum several times but kept deleting it. Then I thought I’d try pecking out a few words offline first and just see where it took me. Those few words ballooned into a few thousand. Rather than eating up precious space on someone else’s cyber-turf, I figured I’d jump over here to my own, say my piece, and let the chips fall where they may.
First, a few disclaimers (mostly stating the obvious). I do not speak for all the 40 million black people in America. No black person does. Not all BLM sympathizers are black. Not all black people are BLM sympathizers. Not all protesters are BLM sympathizers. Not all BLM folks are the same. It’s not a tightly-organized, uniform group. Not all the folks on the ground agree with the “leadership” or the “representatives” you see in network interviews (kind of like the NRA). To the extent any commentary fails to respect those facts, they are weakening rather than enhancing the dialogue. And with that, here we go.
I strongly disagree with most of what I’ve seen on television when it comes to Black Lives Matter. I think they are often dangerously disruptive, they lack message discipline, they can be condescending and hypocritical, and they harp too disproportionately on the negative. I think they would attract a more receptive audience if they spent as much time praising good cops as they spend trashing bad cops. I wish they would just as loudly applaud the system when it works in the way they’ve envisioned — like when “bad shoots” end with criminal convictions.
And when those five officers were murdered in Dallas, BLM should have been all over the prime-time news outlets on all local and national stations forcefully condemning that atrocity without caveat. There were some BLM activists who did sit for interviews and did condemn the shootings, but most of them quickly pivoted back to their own message, which made their disavowal of the murders ring hollow. When those officers were killed, BLM should have organized its largest rally ever and invited police to join them for a unified front to present a clear, unmistakable, unwavering, unconditional message that unprovoked violence against police is morally abhorrent, legally unjustified, and wholly unacceptable no matter what you think of the police, period (not to mention, it only exacerbates the very problems that BLM claims to detest). They didn’t do any of that. Or at least, if they did, I missed it (which is also possible).
However, I also strongly disagree with people who group together everyone with any remote iota of sympathy for BLM and paint them all with a broad, indiscriminate brush. I don’t think it’s helpful to make fun of BLM; to call them “animals” or “savages”; to roundly dismiss them all as a bunch of thuggish, jobless, lazy, stupid hoodlums; or to cavalierly co-opt the name and slap it on caricatures like “All Clowns Matter” or “Black Coffee Matters.” Incidentally, I also happen to think that just in terms of plain PR tactics, the name “Black Lives Matter” (while a true statement) is an unfortunate moniker and slogan, precisely because it invites these kinds of trivializing parodies. But that’s for another conversation.
And I don’t think it’s particularly honorable to revile a grieving mother, even if she may have tunnel vision as to the real reasons why her son is no longer here. (And by the way, it’s just as harmful to weaponize a parent’s grief for political purposes. But again, I digress.)
While I’m not a fan of the unproductive (and in many ways counter-productive) tactics employed by BLM, I completely understand why a group like BLM would come into existence. With all its cringeworthy flaws and failings, BLM rose to prominence for many of the same reasons that perfectly intelligent people would quit their jobs and join Occupy Wall Street. They rose for the same reasons that smart, deliberative, politically-savvy people would vote for Donald Trump. In short, they feel screwed by the powerful elite. We don’t have to agree with people’s opinions or support their methods to acknowledge that their underlying concerns are at least valid, even if not sound.
Valid concerns and kernels of raw truth are often buried at the root of otherwise imperfect uprisings. Once you exclude all the super-crazies on the far extremes (like those who resort to violence in the name of BLM or the white supremacists who love Trump), the rest of the folks usually have understandable motivations. But for those who rarely get to hang out with many folks from “the other side,” it might be more difficult to reach that level of understanding. And that is true of ALL sides. I’ve asked many BLM supporters, “When’s the last time you sat down to chat with a group of police officers?” And I would pose the converse question to anyone who thinks all BLM folks are parasitic whiners.
Beneath the Surface…
Another gun forum poster (who happens to be a black male) once said that “no officer I’ve encountered has been anything but civil and nice to me…” I have no problem believing that, and I’m happy for his fortunes. That is the experience of many, many black males; and I wish more of them would stand up and speak out in support of the professional law enforcement officers who do their jobs commendably.
My brother, on the other hand, has had a different experience. For example, a few weeks ago, he was driving under the speed limit when an officer behind him happened to run his tag for no specific reason (I explained to my brother that this happens all the time and there’s nothing wrong with officers running tags arbitrarily). My brother’s tag came up as expired, so the officer pulled him over. After my brother showed the officer his valid driver’s license and valid (unexpired) vehicle registration, the officer conceded that there had been glitches in the computer system with a recent switch to new software. However, in my brother’s wallet, his driver’s license happened to be displayed right next to his handgun carry permit. He showed the officer both (even though Tennessee is not a must-inform state). I was not there, but this is how my brother later recounted the story to me, with frustration in his voice and tears in his eyes.
The Officer asked, “Oh, so you got a carry permit, huh?”
“Yes, sir,” my brother replied, with his hands on the steering wheel (for generations, everybody in my family has had “the talk,” so he instinctively reverted to that deeply ingrained paradigm for police interactions).
The officer’s voice became a bit more agitated, his diction and posture more fidgety. “So you got a gun in the car? You got guns in there?”
“No, sir, I don’t. I took the safety course a few months ago and just got my permit, but I’m not armed. I don’t even own a gun, sir.”
The officer replied, “Well I don’t believe you. Get out. I need to search your car.” My brother complied. He got out, was patted down, and then stood on the side of the road for a half hour while the officer rifled through the passenger compartment of his car, finding nothing. My brother was not only inconvenienced and delayed but humiliated on a public street. And he was afraid. Did he get killed or maimed or bludgeoned by the police? No. The officer wasn’t even rude. But was there something indescribably unsettling about this situation? IMHO, Yes.
Elsewhere in the city, by sheer coincidence, my white female friend faced the exact same situation, with another officer confronting her about erroneous data from the exact same glitchy new computer system. She was pulled over because the year sticker had fallen off her license plate (in other words, there was a specific legal infraction that prompted the officer to run her tags in the first place). She had the same handgun permit as my brother. In fact, they had taken the safety class together. She was not asked any questions about having a firearm. Her car was not searched. She was not frisked. And she was not afraid.
I have no idea why my brother’s police encounter unfolded so differently than my friend’s. I honestly can’t say. Could it have been a training issue that had nothing whatsoever to do with race? Absolutely. Could the first officer have simply been a little on edge with all the violence that’s been directed at police lately? Sure. But when I try to explain to my brother that the Philando Castile video doesn’t show the whole story, I know that in the back of his mind, even if only subconsciously, the experience he had with that police officer is coloring his viewpoints. That personal, visceral memory is ever so slightly nudging his preconceptions. I know that, and he knows it.
What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? … An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks…
Take my brother’s experience and couple it with my own memories of being carded by university police when I entered the Georgetown Law Center campus to go to class. Sometimes they would ask, “Are you lost, lady?” A few times a month, I was asked for my school I.D. — even as other students entered alongside me and were not stopped. If you’re skeptical of my brother and me, or if you think the frequency of police interaction is a natural and innocuous artifact of heightened police presence in high-crime areas or “bad neighborhoods,” then perhaps you’re more receptive to Republican Senator Tim Scott, one of only two black Senators in Congress, who recently offered his own account of being stopped by police a whopping seven times in one year while serving in the Senate.
A Few More Layers Down…
Those are just a handful of anecdotes. In isolation, they are probably meaningless. But when you combine them with the similar experiences of dozens of black friends and family members, or scores of black classmates and colleagues, or hundreds of black social media acquaintances, or thousands of black bloggers and internet voices, then it becomes less of an anomaly and more of a collective, shared experience. And that’s how small, isolated misunderstandings get amplified into movements based (at least in part) on misinformation. That’s how a group like BLM is born. And, by the way, for those who don’t have hundreds of black friends and classmates and internet buddies, there might have previously been no indication that this shared experience even existed. So, when it finally boils to the surface, one understandable reaction is mistrust, incredulity, disbelief.
I can’t find the link anymore, but I remember one online writer who once drew this analogy (it’s not perfectly parallel, but still illustrative). How many white people do you know who take extensive precautions against skin cancer? I know a lot. They use sun block, they avoid too much daylight exposure, etc. What if I said to them, “Why the hell do you slather that guck all over yourself just for a day at the beach? You’re stupid, paranoid, and self-absorbed. Just go get in the water like a normal person and quit obsessing over dying of cancer. You have a much better chance of getting hit by a car anyway.” There might be tidbits of truth in those comments (like maybe the person is putting on way too much sunscreen, or maybe the odds of getting melanoma are relatively small). It would still be rude and condescending for me to assume those concerns are unfounded just because I personally have no fears of sun damage to my own skin. That’s kind of how many black people feel when folks say they are crazy for being “scared” of the police. Their fear might be exaggerated, or it might be the wrong response, but it isn’t totally plucked from the clear blue sky.
Take the aggregation of those relatively mild fears from relatively isolated incidents, and then add to that the occasional indelicate choice of words (Freudian slip?) from respected national commentators like Congressman Steve King, who defended “old white people” by asking “where did any other sub-group of people contribute more to civilization?” He couldn’t fathom any other “contributions that have been made by these other categories of people” (i.e., non-Western, non-white people).
I got a similar response to one of my recent posts, where I encouraged the pro-gun community to be proactive about diversifying its ranks and leadership. The commenter challenged, “Why have most of the world’s inventions come from white guys? Why do most of the nice-to-live-in countries have white people in them?” He saw fit to remind me that America “was invented by old, white, male slave-owners” who “created the nation that everyone wants to live in” despite there being “[n]o women at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, no Jews, no blacks, no Catholics[,] … no Native Americans, no Latinos, no Orientals or Asians.” He did at least admit that he “may be wrong about no Catholics being there.”
And add to that some of the stories revealed by the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite, where people share anecdotes of questionable behavior resulting in different consequences for different races. In one example, a white guy tries to break into a car, and the police drive right past him; a black guy tries the same stunt and gets arrested at gunpoint; and commenters assume it’s because the black guy was “dressed like a hobo” (his attire looked fine to me). In another example, the police actually helped a white person break into a car, taking for granted that the car must have belonged to him. Another example is the open carry phenomenon. People who are inclined to sympathize with BLM have noticed white folks walking around with guns and being politely questioned by police, while black folks walking around with guns spark a much more contentious reaction (reminiscent of the Mulford Act). It rarely ends in a controversial shooting, and often it might even be explained away by factors totally irrelevant to race. But for people who don’t know any police officers or don’t have any reference point for what policework entails, these kinds of anecdotes only reinforce (and perhaps unduly amplify) the narrative of disparate treatment.
And then, add to that the public observations by seemingly credible pundits like the former New York police detective who, when pushed, ultimately admitted that he believes black people are “prone to criminality.” He cited the usual statistics to purportedly back up this claim: black people are more often victims, more often offenders, more plagued with crime, and on and on. But that set of stats – just like a two-minute video of a police shooting taken out of context, or a “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan, or a “black lives matter” hashtag, or any other truncated, twitterized, bumper-sticker-ready over-generalization — simply doesn’t tell the whole story. Isolating those facts is problematic for the same reason it’s problematic to disproportionately harp on the concept of “black-on-black crime,” as if black people are genetically predisposed to some kind of ethnic cannibalism — even though the vast majority of all interpersonal crime is intra-racial, and poor rural whites are just as likely to be welfare-dependent or drug-addicted as poor urban blacks.
And then add to that the current presidential candidates, one of whom panders to black voters by claiming she keeps hot sauce in her purse, and another who goes to mostly-white neighborhoods to proclaim that black people’s lives are so rock-bottom shitty that they all literally have “nothing to lose.”
Approaching the Core…
Those stories are only one small part of the whole. They don’t show the big picture. But they are real. And unfortunately, for one side of the debate, that’s often the only world they know. If that is all you ever see, then of course you’ll have an incomplete perception of the world. Conversely, many on the other side of the debate have never seen things from that alternate perspective, so their perception is equally incomplete. Pit these two sides against one another, and you have potential catastrophe — especially if both sides are hyper-defensive and hesitant to admit when they’re wrong. Circle back to the gentleman who insisted that most of the good in this world has come from white men. He began his post by confessing that “I love to be around people with whom I agree.” I suppose that’s one way to go through life. I would argue it’s also how we end up with polarized flashpoints like BLM.
And again, I’m not saying only the anti-BLM crowd is too closed-off. I’m saying this is the main problem with BLM itself. It’s the reason I take issue with the whole BLM movement (and so does my brother, by the way). BLM is too often one-sided. Its leaders too hastily trivialize alternate viewpoints while purporting to want honest dialogue. It takes dangerous liberties with the facts and overreacts to premature assumptions. It calls for justice while flirting with the outskirts of the law. It demands that police exercise absolute, unshakable civility and restraint, while insisting that its own grossly disruptive tactics are perfectly warranted and should be excused. It wants to have its cake and eat it too.
I think everyone — black, white, Asian, liberal, conservative, police, civilian — everyone needs to keep in mind three things. One: The most extreme voices always have the biggest platform and the loudest megaphone. But they don’t always represent the views of the group. Two: Nothing anyone could ever distill into a single post or tweet will ever even remotely encapsulate the complexities at issue here. There’s always more to the story. Always. Three: We are ALL guilty of confirmation bias. All of us. For example, many BLM opponents have cited the Harvard study that found that the police actually kill more whites than blacks. Many BLM supporters have cited the exact same study, which also found that the police use greater levels of force against minorities than against whites. Both facts are true. Both sides have a point. Neither side acknowledges that about the other. The evidence that backs up our preconceived notions tends to be ushered to the front of our minds, no matter which side we’re on and no matter how sound the counter-evidence may be.
And of course, most of us habitually publicize news of horrific shock and awe at the expense of more constructive stories. The bad is always more interesting. The bad gets more replies, more “likes,” more retweets, more shares — which in turn makes the original poster feel more relevant. You won’t hear about the anti-crime rally that BLM held in Memphis a few weeks ago. Instead, you’ll hear that they kept a sick baby from getting to the hospital. You won’t hear about the police officers attending a neighborhood cookout together with BLM. You won’t hear about the Coffee with a Cop program. Instead, you’ll only hear about officers shooting an unarmed, fleeing old black man in the back.
How many of you have heard of the song, “F*ck tha Police”? Most, I’m sure. In fact, for many people, that song pretty much sums up the whole rap culture. What about the counter-slogan, “Hug tha Police”? Do we share posts about the Free Hugs Project as much as we share posts about black people screaming “die, pig, die”? Do we smile at efforts like “We’re All in the Same Gang” as much as we frown on so-called black-on-black crime? Most of us don’t. It’s human nature, and it doesn’t make us bad people. But it also doesn’t much help steer the discussion towards solutions.
I guess what I’m saying is this: If you happen to have no experience with the variety of pain and anguish that other people feel, that doesn’t always mean that pain is a figment of their imagination. Might they be addressing that pain in illogical or unhelpful ways? Sure. I read some pretty disturbing comments on lots of freedom-loving, Constitution-citing gun forums in the hours after those officers were killed in Dallas. Much of it was violent, and some of it was racially-charged. But I didn’t leap to any conclusions, because I knew most of those sentiments were coming from inflamed hearts rather than dispassionate minds. Fear, anger, insulated perspectives, unpleasant memories, and emotional trauma don’t always beget the most logical behavior. But please resist the temptation to write off an entire group of people, especially if you can count on one hand the number of times you’ve looked them in the eye had a substantive, in-person, good old fashioned conversation with any of them.
Aaaaaand I promise never to write a post this long again. Sorry.