One of the most frustrating aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement is how it continues to be misunderstood. In particular, law enforcement has consistently failed to understand the movement’s core tenet: black people are not less than, and they’re tired of being treated as such.
This shouldn’t be a lightning rod point. It’s arguing for treatment that is not separate, just equal.
But in a press release sent out last week, after three Baton Rouge police officers were gunned down following five in the Dallas sniper attack, the San Jose Police Officers Association (POA) suggested that the Black Lives Matter movement is an illegitimate cause. It noted that “we need action” as a society over “more statements of condemnation of these heinous acts or pledges of remorse for these latest murders.”
The statement concluded: “The hypocrisy must stop for a dialogue to start.”
In fact, the hypocrisy of statements like these needs to stop for a real dialogue to start.
The hashtag clash of #BlueLivesMatter vs. #BlackLivesMatter forgets that these positions are not mutually exclusive. But while we appropriately rally behind law enforcement in the wake of senseless murders of officers, we should not fall back to tropes such as “All Lives Matter.” This is a misdirection and avoids having the conversation we need to have, just as the POA denied or ignored my requests for an interview about their statement.
Black Lives Matter has never been about raising one group of people over others for a rare glimpse from the top. It’s about the very real fact that black men and women in this country have been systematically targeted, oppressed, incarcerated and killed by police in disproportionate numbers for generations, and it needs to stop. We do not live in a post-racial world, but we can create a more just society by agreeing that black lives matter just as much as all other lives and then proving it.
“The families of these fallen and injured officers need our support, prayers and commitment to do all we can to take the necessary action to protect law enforcement personnel and hold the cowardly murderers accountable,” the POA statement reads.
So, how can we better protect law enforcement?
Laws in California already give considerable protection to police. As I reported in a 2014 story about officer-involved shootings, an officer of the law merely needs a reasonable fear for his or her safety to open fire and kill a person. This is how an elderly Vietnamese woman holding a potato peeler is shot to death. This is how a man in a doctor’s costume, sleeping in a hotel stairwell after a Halloween party, gets shot somewhere between 24 and 26 times.
There have been more than several dozen officer-involved shootings in Santa Clara County since 2009, and not a single officer has ever been charged with improperly firing their weapon. That’s one way we protect officers. We give them the benefit of the doubt even when we disagree on what constitutes a proper amount of force.
But if we really want to protect our police officers, why hasn’t the Blue Lives Matter movement taken a firm position on greater gun control and mental health initiatives? Many of the men and women shot and killed by police are suspected of having a weapon, so why do we as a society still insist on allowing people to arm themselves to the teeth?
It is no stretch to say that the people who have targeted and killed random police officers are insane, just like someone who takes a high-powered rifle and attacks a school full of children has lost their mind.
Why haven’t we seen police unions sponsoring a raft of mental health initiatives? Why has the Blue Lives Matter movement failed to discuss how police officers are being outgunned? The only request currently being made by police is to make violence against police a hate crime, and give more military grade weaponry to local departments. Why hasn't law enforcement put a greater emphasis on simply banning the possession of military grade weapons to the public?
When everyone is strapped like a Call of Duty character, the only advantage is high ground—and morally, police unions will not have it until they admit that they have done nothing as a powerful lobbying force to fight the NRA.
A citizenry allowed to arm itself like mercenaries will only result in continued clashes between police and heavily armed people who have lost control. The fanciest, most effective killing machines were not created with the intention of gathering dust. They were, in many cases, purchased by extremists with the exact intention of resisting an oppressive government. And while the events in Baton Rouge and Dallas are in no way defensible, the killing of police is an inescapable ramification of the Second Amendment, when assault rifles are placed in the hands of people who are unhinged and feel oppressed.
“It is past time for our political leaders to step up and support law enforcement with the necessary staffing and equipment to keep our neighborhoods safe,” the POA statement reads. “We don't need any more statements of condemnation of these heinous acts or pledges of remorse for these latest murders, we need action.”
The police union wants action. But when I called and emailed the POA for an interview about what specific actions they think should be taken, the union played possum.
Parsing out the statement, the terms “necessary staffing and equipment” suggest San Jose should hire more police officers. No one disagrees with this contention. A few hundred officers have retired or resigned over the last six years, and the department has struggled to recruit new officers with Measure B still lingering. However, the POA also spent several years actively hampering recruiting and retention efforts, going as far to hold recruiting fairs for other law enforcement agencies and instructing recruits to fleece the city for training before taking jobs elsewhere. Their hands are not clean.
When it comes to equipment, the POA’s desires could include everything from mine-resistant armored vehicles, grenade launchers and body armor to better surveillance technology, infra-red cameras for the department’s helicopter or even body cameras.
None of this will stop the public from also gaining access to deadly weapons.
And while unfortunate, better equipment almost certainly would not have prevented the death of SJPD Officer Michael Johnson, who was ambushed by a mentally ill man possessing a rifle and the high ground.
“When an organization only incites protests over officer involved incidents and does not display the same level of moral outrage or condemnation when a cop is innocently gunned down then we must question the legitimacy of that organization,” the POA says.
This suggestion that the Black Lives Matter movement lacks legitimacy because it “incites” protests over “officer involved incidents” is a red herring.
First, terms like “incite” are generally paired with words like “riot.” The POA suggests that protests are offensive forms of political speech, rather than a First Amendment right. One they have sworn an oath to protect.
Second, people are not protesting “office involved incidents.” They are protesting the killing of men and women of color. They are protesting wildly disproportionate uses of force against people of color. They are protesting the perverse lionization of law enforcement, such as when people cheer over cops avoiding criminal charges after Freddy Gray’s in-custody death. They are protesting inherent biases and the way generations of men and women have been targeted: first for the color of their skin, and second for clues to a to-be-determined crime.
The flip side of the POA’s argument—that the Black Lives Matter movement should put aside its call for fair, equal treatment to decry the killing of innocent police officers—would also require police unions like San Jose’s to release press statements denouncing the way scores of men and women of color have been wrongly killed by law enforcement.
Where was the POA’s denunciation of the officer who shot, and could have killed, a Florida man last week, as he lay on the ground with his arms skyward? Where is the outrage that this officer attempted to kill this man, who was simply trying to help an autistic patient who had lost his way?
The Blue Lives Matter movement has a nation ready and willing to support police officers, so why doesn’t it do something about the number of guns on our streets? Why doesn’t it actually address the dangers of deteriorating mental health when people possess these guns?
There are bad apples on all sides, in law enforcement and political movements that demand aggressive change. But the political will is there to do something, if police will only stand up and make the discussion about gun control, mental health and justice—instead of them versus just us.
Below is the full press release from the San Jose Police Officer’s Association:
San Jose Police Officers' Association Statement on the Murder of 3 Baton Rouge Police Officers
Sadly, again today we mourn over the murder of three Baton Rouge police officers and pray for the speedy recovery of three other officers shot during this latest cowardly ambush. The families of these fallen and injured officers need our support, prayers and commitment to do all we can to take the necessary action to protect law enforcement personnel and hold the cowardly murderers accountable.
It is past time for our political leaders to step up and support law enforcement with the necessary staffing and equipment to keep our neighborhoods safe. We don't need any more statements of condemnation of these heinous acts or pledges of remorse for these latest murders, we need action.
When law and order breaks down to the point where our nation experiences 10 law enforcement officers killed over a 10-day period then a serious look at who we are and what we have become must take place. When a highly paid NFL player uses social media to repost an image of a cop getting his throat slit, then we must question where that player lost his moral compass and why no one around that player intervened. When an organization only incites protests over officer involved incidents and does not display the same level of moral outrage or condemnation when a cop is innocently gunned down then we must question the legitimacy of that organization.
The hypocrisy must stop for a dialogue to start.