Black Lives, Blue Lives and Vigilante Acts

(Apologies for typos or other mistakes, I kinda rushed this up to get it out there)

Like many I’ve been shaken by the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling as continuing displays of a system that seem incapable of regulating bad actors, and which has been shown time and again to be biased towards people of color, the mentally ill, and the poor.

This raises fundamental questions about the fairness and legitimacy of a system that purports to deliver justice, but which seems to deliver wildly different outcomes based on who, both in terms of victims and perpetrators, and where deadly violence is likely to occur in the course of what should be routine interactions with law enforcement. Ultimately what critics of the police and advocates of the affected communities are asking for is accountability and transparency when these incidents happen. Instead what they are often met with is hostility and stonewalling, and sometimes outright deception. Defenders of the police often argue that it is only a few bad apples, but what do you do when those apples are not thrown out, when they are not even held liable and find themselves still employed or even promoted.

In studying radicalism and the formation of terrorist or violent groups there are similar dynamics. A group often feels like it has lost its voice, and begins to see the structures meant to keep its members safe as doing the opposite. Over time faith in these institutions erodes and they begin to lose legitimacy. This has been the process that has been occurring in communities of color for decades now. The police and the justice system are seen as rigged, as corrupt and uncaring or unwilling to help some of the most vulnerable people in our country. When this happens with political movements occasionally some segment of them splits off and radicalizes, they decide to take matters into their own hands. Which leads us to a potential explanation for what happened in Dallas last night.

From all accounts out so far (and as always with these things I’d caution you to be skeptical, it’s still chaotic and confused and most of the facts have not come out yet) these were men that were armed and ready to carry out targeted killings. Multiple conservative sites (not gonna give them the traffic, you can use Google) are already running with this being connected to Black Lives Matter or that they were activists with BLM, though accounts from the ground indicate that the shooting started after the main protest had already broken up. The one suspect that police talked to indicated he wanted to kill white officers but also that he was not part of BLM, though he seemed to indicate he shared some of their grievances.

The Dallas shooting has already shifted the dialogue, we’re no longer, or at least not with as much force and vigor, talking about Castile and Sterling. And this is a problem because this is exactly the kind of attack that plays into the narrative espoused by those who are most eager to deny that there is a problem. Now these two shootings have been balanced, at least in the eyes of skeptics about the need for reform and for many media organizations, to a two sided debate; black v. white, or if you prefer black v. blue. Whose lives matter more? In this false dichotomy expect to hear that we can’t talk about Black lives mattering because to do so would be to invite more attacks like Dallas, or will dishonor the lives of the officers who were killed. It’s the same rhetoric that’s been used to denigrate and tear down Muslims since 9/11, this simplistic view that there is no nuance in the debate. ‘All Muslims are terrorists’ will now become ‘all police reform activists are supporters of cop killers.’

And that’s bad, because it’s not the threat of reform that caused Dallas, it’s the frustration and sense that no reform is possible. If the lesson that some people take from Dallas is that the police should not be questioned, and that calls for reform are dangerous then they will be playing right into the narrative that drives people to engage in these sorts of acts of violence.

So, if you’ve made it to the end here I implore you, over the next few days, weeks or months, when you talk about these shootings do not fall into the trap of black v blue. Reframe it as if black then blue. Because it is essential that all communities feel safe, and feel like the system at least treats them no worse than anyone else, and it is this lack of safety that drives people to desperate and extreme actions, not the desire for that safety. And there will be calls for BLM to denounce these attacks, which they probably will, but hopefully in a way that makes it clear these attacks are an extreme example of what is causing them to protest, not a result of their protesting. And the police should recognize that not calling out, and not holding accountable bad actors in their midst makes their job that much harder. As an officer you may feel that your colleague acted in good faith, but your belief isn’t what is driving the anger and heartbreak it’s a community’s experience in what they see and what they suffer. Further repression or dismissal of a community’s sense of injustice will not make the situation go away, crackdowns on protests will not make the situation go away, if anything it threatens to drive more people towards more extreme ends and will result in more tragedy.


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