Opinion

opinion | Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.

Black Lives Matter occupies an important space

Demonstrators carried a “Black Lives Matter” banner while protesting the death of Ezell Ford during a meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission in June.
REUTERS/file
Demonstrators carried a “Black Lives Matter” banner while protesting the death of Ezell Ford during a meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission in June.

The meme “All Lives Matter” is yet another effort to undermine legitimate calls to end antiblack police practices that characterize far too many interactions between police and citizens of color. Covered with a veneer of neutral and inclusive language, this mantra cleverly hides an intent to silence those who insist that police treat black citizens justly.

Perhaps the cry “All Lives Matter’’ would register as genuine if police unions expressed the same opprobrium when a fellow officer kills a person of color as they do when an officer is killed. But this rarely happens. Instead, police unions tend either to support or remain deafeningly silent when their own misbehave.

Of course, any killing of an innocent person should offend our collective moral sensibilities. All lives, self-evidently, matter. That is not the point. The point is that this country has been silent for decades, as citizens of color have been killed by those sworn to protect and serve. The Black Lives Matter movement is an attempt to shed light on a problem that has existed in the shadows.

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Many specious arguments have been advanced to undermine the movement. Foremost is that blacks kill other blacks at a significantly higher clip than police kill blacks. This is true. But those who advance this argument elide a critical distinction between the two. There is something far more disconcerting about a police officer killing an innocent, as compared to other killings. Criminals do bad things. That’s why we arrest, prosecute, jail, and, sometimes, execute them. Police officers, on the other hand, are not supposed to be criminals. They are agents of the state, duty-bound to safeguard. And when the mechanisms of government work to protect those officers who misbehave, by failing to prosecute or convict, the actions of such officers are viewed as state-sanctioned killings of innocent citizens of color. No matter how infrequently that may occur, it shocks us and weakens our trust in government.

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Besides, frequency of occurrence has never been the measure of the country’s outrage. Americans kill exponentially more Americans than foreign terrorists do, but we don’t silence the antiterror lobby. The same logic holds for Black Lives Matter. They are not a group of mathematicians resolute on apportioning their protests to align with the frequency of criminality in America. Instead, the aim is to promote police accountability in a culture where it has been sorely lacking.

Perhaps the most insidious assault on Black Lives Matter is that the protests have somehow caused violence against police. That argument is as silly as suggesting that the way a woman dresses causes her rape. The only thing Black Lives Matter has caused is a national conversation about police accountability. Trying to create a causal relationship between the indefensible police shootings in Houston and Fox Lake, Ill., and Black Lives Matters is an unjustified attempt to politicize those tragedies.

Finally, the claim that the black community ignores black-on-black crime shows a remarkable ignorance to intrarace discussions. Go to any black church, civic organization, or school, and hear pleas to stop the violence. Turn on the television and see a gross overrepresentation of black-on-black crime. This issue is fully explored in the media, and the demographic makeup of prisons shows that the public takes it seriously.

What has not been taken seriously is the issue of police accountability and illegal behavior in communities of color. That’s the important space Black Lives Matter occupies. It does the important work of stressing that black lives, also, matter.

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. is a professor at Harvard Law School, where he is the faculty director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute and the Harvard Trial Advocacy Workshop.

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