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The meaning of the movement

While reading Mr. Hibbard’s Guest Commentary published by this periodical on Sept. 15, I felt compelled to answer his question: Why does the Black Lives Matter movement have an outsize reaction to the murder of Black Americans over those of other races?

The key focuses of the Black Lives Matter movement are police brutality, the disproportionate level of violence experienced by Black Americans at the hands of police officers, the lack of accountability in police departments, and the mass incarceration of people of color. Whether Black people face higher rates of police violence is not up for debate. Several separate academic studies — such as that by Edwards, Lee and Esposito in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) in 2019, or by Fagan and Campbell in the Boston University Law Review earlier this year — show that Black people are more than twice as likely as any other ethnic group to be killed by the police. The United States Sentencing Commission found in 2017 that Black men received 19% longer prison sentences than their “similarly situated” white counterparts. As the old saying goes: Men lie; women lie; numbers don’t. Under these circumstances, the disproportionate reaction to the death of Black Americans matches the disproportionate rate at which they are killed by law enforcement.

If one truly believes that all lives matter, he or she must necessarily believe that Black lives matter. Thus, in light of the fact that Black lives are taken by the state at disproportionate numbers — and sometimes in ruthless, almost flamboyant style — the affront to Black life must be combated as an affront to all life.

What is to be done, then, about an affront to life? A common refrain is, “Vote.” Voting is a necessary tool in any ideological toolbelt, but legislatures are not well known for their speed and flexibility in responding to pressing concerns. When one’s life is on the line, he or she does not have time to wait for what reform may or may not come in the next Assembly. Thence comes the activism for Black equality that has snowballed through the centuries. Mr. Hibbard recalls fondly the peaceful demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but he forgets that Dr. King and his followers were blasted with firehoses, sicced with dogs, arrested en masse, widely denounced in national newspapers and, in Dr. King’s case, shot dead.

In learning about Dr. King in school, I did not learn the names of any police officers who were famously removed from their posts for the violence they perpetrated on integrationists. I did not learn the name of Dr. King’s assassin. I learned all about the horrors he faced in the name of equality, and I learned the names of those who were killed, but I did not learn the names of those who were held responsible for the horrors or for the killing. Such it is in today’s climate, where police officers murder unarmed, innocent Americans in the privacy of their own homes and walk free.

Breonna Taylor was asleep in her home when officers in plain clothes blasted her door open with a battering ram and fired 20 rounds into her apartment, hitting her eight times. One of those officers has been removed from his post, and none has been held criminally responsible for killing an unarmed and innocent person.

More recently and closer to home, two Buffalo police officers shoved an unarmed, stationary, 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground during a protest in June, fracturing his skull on the sidewalk. A video of the incident shows one of the officers stop another officer from helping Gugino. When the Buffalo Police Department held its officers accountable by suspending the pair involved, 57 Buffalo cops quit their jobs in solidarity with their co-workers who endangered an elderly man’s life with a senseless act of violence. This unified revulsion to discipline is disturbing, and indicates a pervasive and inimical culture at that department. The president of the Buffalo police union said the officers who cracked Gugino’s skull were “simply following orders.” We decided at Nuremberg that that excuse is invalid.

Police are under special scrutiny because of the role they play in our society. We expect police officers to uphold the laws of our state and keep us safe from malevolent actors. Enforcers of the law are the interface of the social contract between a populace and its government. When members of that populace are killed in cold blood, the expectation is that justice will be served, and that justice will be blind. It should not matter whether the killer is white, Black or “blue.” The reality that cellphone videos and bodycams have revealed is that “blue” offenders have gotten away with violence, harassment and murder of Black Americans for years, that they have not faced the consequences for their actions, and that police departments bury the misconduct of their officers behind a blue wall of silence. When justice is not meted fairly among the government as it is among the governed, the social contract is broken, and chaos erupts.

As with any group, there are good cops and there are bad cops. The current state of policing in America, and the unique nature of their position, demands that good cops hold bad cops accountable or be conflated with them. This is not the same as with racial groups — “blue” is not an immutable or innate condition. It is a job. One cannot remove the color of his skin if he finds the actions of his cohort distasteful as one can with a uniform.

In a world where we give police departments armored personnel carriers but make schoolteachers buy their own chalk, we must demand better from law enforcement and from our legislature. We must demand it in the voting booth, and when that fails we must demand it peacefully in the streets. The fact of the matter is that all lives don’t matter until Black lives matter.

Nicholas Boni lives in Brooklyn.

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