Saturday, December 20, 2014

Blue Lives Matter Misses the Point

There is a social media campaign going on in conjunction with pro-police themed rallies and protests
around the country known as Blue Lives Matter. This all started with a facebook page purporting to support the work of the New York Police Department. The page was created by an unnamed user, and according to Buzzfeed
The page’s creator insisted that the rally [in New York City] was not meant to be a response to last week’s anti-police protests and that he or she did not see the situation as a racial issue.“It’s just something to support the men and women who risk their lives for law abiding citizens against the criminals in our society,” the creator of the page wrote to BuzzFeed News. “Did you see the most common hashtag was #AllLivesMatter. Isn’t that really the point? Or is it just a black issue? Aren’t there black police officers?”
By appropriating #BlackLivesMatter the creator of the page is implicitly acknowledging that this issue is about race, regardless of what he or she says. By creating the hashtag BlueLivesMatter the creator is setting up a simplistic dichotomy that completely misses the point of #BlackLivesMatter and reduces it to police verses black people. That's not what #BlackLivesMatter and the accompanying protests are all about. This is the latest incarnation of the civil rights movement, it is not about disparaging the police. It is about recognizing the systematic injustices that an entire segment of the American population faces at the hands of law enforcement due to the color of their skin. Furthermore, the BlackLivesMatter movement is in response to incidents in which law abiding citizens were unjustly killed by police officers.

It is not that the lives of police men and women don't matter, it's about pointing out the fact that black lives do matter. The problem is that when young black men are murdered by police officers, and even by vigilantes like George Zimmerman, the perpetrators of those crimes are never held accountable for their actions. When police are shot or killed by civilians those perpetrators are always arrested, charged, and sentenced to jail time. The same does not occur when police officers murder civilians. Furthermore, often times police officers with dismal records are allowed to continue their work.

For example, look at the officers involved in the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland. One of the two officers involved, Frank Garmback was just this year involved in a $100,000 settlement with a citizen resident who filed a lawsuit against the officer for excessive force. The other officer, Timothy Loehman, resigned from a short stint with the Independence Police Department after it was recommended that he be let go. As reported in USA Today a 2012 internal memo said the following of officer Loehman:

[D]uring a time on a gun range [Lowhman was] "distracted" and "weepy," while being "incommunicative," according to Deputy Chief Jim Polak.
 "He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections," according to a letter from Polak. "I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies."
Officer Loehman was hired as a police officer with the Cleveland Police Department after this memo came out. He should never have been hired in the first place, and at the very least officer Gambrack should never have been put back on patrol after the settlement for excessive force. He should have been permanently assigned to desk duty.

And of course, need I even mention the case of Eric Garner in Staten Island? Here we have a case where the medical examiner determined that the cause of Eric garners death was homicide. According to Time:
On Aug. 1, a New York City medical examiner determined that the cause of death in the Garner case was “homicide,” specifically the neck compressions from  Pantaleo’s chokehold and “the compression of [Garner’s] chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police,” according to spokeswoman, Julie Bolcer.
On top of that there is video of the incident in question:

 Despite the video and the conclusion of the medical examiner the officer involved, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted by a grand jury for his actions. 

This is exactly the problem. Police officers who beat and kill unarmed black men are not held to account for their actions. Yes, the police do have a very dangerous job, and they are given the right to use deadly force in certain situations. Unfortunately, when deadly force is used in a way that goes well beyond the authority given to law enforcement they are not held to account. Any criticism of their actions, any protest at the lack of accountability and the systematic injustices that lead to such incidents are treated as an attack on the profession of law enforcement itself. It simply is not an attack on law enforcement. It is a valid and justified critique of a corrupt and inequitable justice system that allows these things to occur. I have respect for authority, but I do not respect authority figures who abuse their authority and power. The very actions of certain police officers, along with a criminal justice system that excuses those officers for those actions is exactly why we need the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We already know that blue lives matter. We see that in the fact that if you injure or kill a police officer you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Police dogs are even afforded more legal protections than black people as can be seen in the case of John Rush (and no, I am not excusing Mr. Rush's actions in this case). The same cannot be said if a police officer injures or kills a civilian, especially if said civilian is black.

The ideas that we can respect law enforcement and critique the system within which they operate are not mutually exclusive.  I'm glad that there are a lot of good people out there who are willing to risk their lives every day to bring law and order to our society. I am saddened  and angered by the fact that we do not hold these public servants to account for abusing their power. Police officers are given an incredible amount of power in our justice system, so they need to be held to a much higher standard when excessing that power. Police officers are charged with protecting and serving all civilians, not just some. 

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