On Lives Mattering: Erasing Privilege

Our country has awakened, recently, to the tensions between communities of color and the police who work in those same communities. Certainly many Americans, particularly Americans of color, have been aware of these tensions for some time. I remember hearing about Amadou Diallo getting shot 19 times in 1999 by four NYPD officers who fired a total of 41 bullets at the unarmed Black man. That’s as far back as my memory for this sort of thing stretches; I humbly acknowledge that for others, pigment and circumstance have necessitated a longer memory.

Diallo got some national attention, and even a Bruce Springsteen song about the killing, but in the end the officers were acquitted and we all went on with our lives. There have been other killings of unarmed minorities by police in the years since, some of which have garnered more attention than others. Oscar Grant was unarmed and lying on the ground when he was shot in the back and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer. Grant got a film; the officer got involuntary manslaughter.

Still, though, many of us hadn’t woken up. Trayvon Martin’s death was even more high profile, though if you’re paying close attention and disinclined to agree with the path I’m cutting, you’ll likely point out that he wasn’t killed by law enforcement. Fair enough. Even so,  George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch captain, and, it seems clear enough now, used his position of authority in order to wield power over the unarmed African-American teen.

If the details were different, the trend is the same, and reveals some troubling attitudes buried deep in the American consciousness about how we feel about young Black men.

And many of us still slept.

Around the same time we began to hear criticism of the NYPD’s Stop-and-Frisk program, a consitutionally murky protocol that disproportionately affects Blacks and Latinos. This seemed to capture our attention for a while, then fade in to the background somewhat as other news items garnered the spotlight.

Among those: Eric Garner and Mike Brown. The killings of these two unarmed Black men by police (and the non-indictment decisions that followed) woke us up as a country. There were protests, there were riots, athletes wearing shirts that said “I can’t breathe” (Garner’s last words while being choked to death by police), and social media campaings.

The most notable of these is #blacklivesmatter, a simple hashtag that captured the country’s attention.

Unfortunately, when the spotlight came on and woke us all up, many of us weren’t ready, and had a hard time seeing clearly.

Enter #alllivesmattter, a reactionary hashtag that seems to suggest that we live in a post-racial utopia with a Black president and everything, and so should get over the notion that any of us is different than the other. In some cases it seems to be an attempt to drown out voices crying out for racial justice, in other cases it seems perhaps a genuine belief that we’re all living the same reality. Some demonstrate a limited understanding of the law (and cast minorities as criminals).

Implicit in #alllivesmatter is the notion that anyone was saying that it’s not the case, or that #blacklivesmatter is actually suggesting somehow that #blacklivesmattermore. This is false.

What’s not false, and what is absolutely critical context for this whole discussion, is a ProPublica analysis of police killings from October, 2o14, which states the following:

Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater i, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.

21 times greater. To say #alllivesmatter, then, is to attempt to erase the privilege that whites enjoy, one in which, by and large, we get to worry about being killed by the police 21 times less than African-Americans.

That’s completely staggering. We are not, then, all the same. Those who try to suggest that we are and that we are all living the same experiences are not, I’d venture to guess, familiar with very many Black people.

Since #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter took hold in the collective consciousness, we experienced another tragedy. A mentally ill Ismaayil Brinsley shot and killed NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. They were ambushed and murdered in their car, a brutal killing, like so many others, that should raise questions about our country’s attitudes towards guns and mental health.

Instead it spawned #bluelivesmatter and #policelivesmatter, and here’s why that’s incredibly offensive.

Again, setting aside fringe elements like Brinsley, in the main, no one is suggesting that police lives don’t matter, least of all me. In fact, my brother-in-law credits a police officer with saving his life by busting him for dealing drugs, an event that directly led to his own sobriety and pursuing a career as a chemical dependency counselor. Police do heroic work and face great dangers. They are not infallible, as we’ve seen, but their lives do, in fact, matter.

Here’s the problem. Social media users, seeking to advocate for law enforcement, could have come up with any number of clever hashtags to do so. To advocate for police at this very moment, however, using the very language that, let’s be honest, communites that have been oppressed by police are using to advocate for themselves, is insulting. It is tantamount to the kind of cultural appropriation that minorities in this country have faced since its inception. It is, in fact, like saying #policelivesmattermore.

And do they? NYPD officers turned their backs on mayor Bill de Blasio at Rafael Ramos’ funeral, a reaction, no doubt, to de Blasio’s criticisms of the NYPD’s history of police brutality. The action seems to suggest that, perhaps, the two officers would have been alive had de Blasio been quiet (in the face of racist violence). Ultimately, they turned their backs on Ramos’ grieving family, as well.

What’s more, they have obfuscated the issue. To ask police to stop killing unarmed Black men is not the same as being anti-cop. To say that #blacklivesmatter is not to say that white people don’t matter, or police, or anything else, but rather that we need to figure out a way to work together to create a society in which we do not have a racial predictability about which group is most likely to be killed by the police.

Those of us who, by virtue of our skin color, enjoy unearned privilege in this society need to put off guilt and shame and defensive posturing and instead examine and own our privilege, and in fact use it to create a more equitable world than the one we were handed.