Resisting the Backlash
Opponents of Black Lives Matter are trying to destroy the movement by slandering it as violent. We can't let them.
The police killing of two black men — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St Paul, Minneapolis — last week horrified people around the world and brought protesters into the streets in large numbers across the country to proclaim that Black Lives Matter.
Yet just as quickly, in Dallas, a man who shot and killed police officers as Black Lives Matter supporters were demonstrating — killing five officers and wounding several more before being killed himself by police — provided the means for the media and law enforcement to shift the spotlight away from the epidemic of police violence and blame those who have risen up to protest.
Micah Xavier Johnson, an African-American veteran, opened fire on police during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas on July 7. There was zero evidence, even in the immediate confusion surrounding the attack, that Johnson was connected to the protest.
But authorities immediately used the opportunity to smear the movement, suggesting that the attack was part of a coordinated plot, and a willing media went along.
Political leaders and media commentators immediately lumped protest against racist police harassment and violence together with Johnson’s shootings — and called on the Black Lives Matter movement to accept some kind of responsibility for Johnson’s rampage.
Typical was the New York Times, which warned that
Black Lives Matter now faces perhaps the biggest crisis in its short history. It is both scrambling to distance itself from an African-American sniper in Dallas who set out to murder white police officers and trying to rebut a chorus of detractors who blame the movement for inspiring his deadly attack.
Of course, neither the Times nor anyone else in a position of power makes the same call for law enforcement to accept collective responsibility for the police murders that take place several times a day across the country. In those cases, we’re told, it’s just “one bad apple.”
CNN’s Chris Cuomo had the gall to ask Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, about her reaction to the shootings in Dallas — before bothering to ask a single question about the loss of her son or the gut-wrenching aftermath captured on video.
The grieving mother set Cuomo straight:
Me? I don’t know anything about what happened in Dallas. My son died just the other day, and I haven’t had sleep in almost 48 hours. So no, I haven’t been watching any television, so I can’t answer that . . .
No one has reached out to me as far as anything concerning [Philando]. As a matter of fact, since my son has been killed–murdered, executed by the state of Minnesota’s police officers–I have not yet to see his body.
The video footage of the deaths of Sterling and Castile — Sterling as he laid subdued on the pavement, and Castile in his car as his fiancé and her four-year-old daughter looked on — brought home once again the daily reality of racist police violence.
Their deaths — one day and one thousand miles apart, but immediately joined in the minds of people around the world because they were captured on video — spurred a new round of protests.
Most were called on short notice, often by new or inexperienced activists, following their instinct to want to speak out against police terror. Demonstrators came out into the streets in cities across the country — from Portland, Oregon, where thousands gathered in the city’s downtown, to Portland, Maine, where hundreds rallied in front of police headquarters.
In Oakland, California — where scandals around sexual abuse and racism recently led to the firing of three police chiefs in a matter of just over a week — more than two thousand rallied and marched to “shut it down” on the evening of July 7, in the largest show of strength by the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence in many months. At one point, a group of protesters took over Interstate 880, with hundreds of people forming a human wall to block traffic.
In Chicago, on July 9, hundreds turned out for separate demonstrations where, after marching through the Taste of Chicago festival and staging a die-in, protesters began taking over intersections.
In Portland, Oregon, the protest drew several thousand to send a message against the murders in Louisiana and Minnesota. (Demonstrators were forced to flee for safety at one point when a local right-wing figure named Michael Strickland — who has a history of attempting to provoke socialists and leftists — pulled a gun on anti-racist protesters.
There were thousands in the streets in New York City — including first-time protesters like sixteen-year-old Lotoya Francis, who told Time magazine, “This is the new civil rights movement, and I wanted to be a part of it. . . We’re way more angry this time around.”
Despite the media narrative that the Black Lives Matter movement is threatening the peace, demonstrators found supporters among onlookers everywhere they marched. Chicagoan Greg Tully, who was stopped as protesters took over Michigan Avenue in the city’s downtown, got out of his car to watch them. “I can wait,” Tully said. “I think this is more important than one person getting somewhere on time. They’re fighting for recognition.”
In St Paul, hundreds turned out to the governor’s mansion, occupying the street outside for days running. A banner hangs on the gates proclaiming “Justice for Philando.” On the evening of July 9, protests took over Interstate 94 and clashed with officers in riot gear.
Predictably, police blamed “outside agitators” for the bitter protests. In Louisiana, a police spokesman said in a statement, “It appears the protest at Baton Rouge Police Headquarters have become more violent as out-of-town protesters are arriving.”
But according to Darren Bowers, whose girlfriend Ariel Bates was one of those arrested, the police antagonized the crowd. “She told me that they jumped all on her, and her cousin on the grass,” Bowers told the Chicago Tribune. “They weren’t on the street or anything. People are peacefully protesting. Why are they in riot gear?”
The police were able to go on the offensive in Baton Rouge and around the country because of Micah Johnson’s killing spree in Dallas — which was twisted into an act of violence connected to Black Lives Matter.
Dallas police initially claimed as many as four shooters were involved. They arrested three people, before quietly releasing them. As Steven Rosenfeld wrote for Alternet, “[T]he message and framing . . . was the stereotype of a cabal of heavily armed Black snipers launching a domestic version of a race war.”
Only later did officials acknowledge that there was just one suspected shooter, Johnson, who apparently told police that he wanted “to kill white people . . . especially cops.” He was killed by a Dallas SWAT team, which used a bomb-carrying robot to kill him.
It was barely questioned in the media, but the remote-control killing of Johnson represents a frightening escalation of the militarization of police. What if the police had used robot bombs against the other three supposed shooters — who turned out to be entirely innocent?
“The fact that the police have a weapon like this, and other weapons like drones and tanks, is an example of the militarization of the police and law enforcement — and goes in the wrong direction,” former National Lawyers Guild President Marjorie Cohn told Common Dreams.
Meanwhile, the media said little about the fact that Johnson was a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan. In the era of the “war on terror,” the violence of US empire has often come home. But the victims are usually the families of former soldiers and the veterans themselves, who sometimes find themselves at the breaking point.
Likewise, the proven facts of racist police harassment and violence were twisted beyond recognition. A despicable Washington Post article reported that Philando Castile had been pulled over by police at least fifty-two times in recent years — and had the nerve to ask: “Was it racial profiling?”
“He was assessed at least $6,588 in fines and fees, although more than half of the total 86 violations were dismissed, court records show,” the Post article stated. “Was Castile an especially bad driver or just unlucky? Or was he targeted by officers who single out black motorists like him for such stops, as several of his family members have alleged? The answer may never be known.”
Really? Never known? Millions of people in America know the answer. Philando Castile was a victim of racism, just like Alton Sterling, just like Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, and Ramarley Graham, and Laquan McDonald, and so many others in cities and towns across the US.
The killing of five police officers in Dallas doesn’t change that. As Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s fiancé, told Cuomo, showing incredible restraint: “This is bigger than Philando, this is bigger than Trayvon Martin, this is bigger than Sandra Bland, this is bigger than all of us. So today, I just want justice for everyone.”
In fact, according to the Washington Post‘s own running tally, 518 people have been killed by police in the US so far this year.
As sixteen-year-old protester Brian Buchanan told Time as he marched against police brutality in New York City last week, “The shooting in Dallas is a tragedy, but so is coming out of your own house and not feeling safe to walk down the street.”
Buchanan’s words speak for everyone who has stood up against the racist violence of police. But on the other side, the calls for “justice” are only for police — and a smear campaign is in the making to label the Black Lives Matter movement as racist against whites.
For example, the right-wing Drudge Report announced in a banner headline that “Black Lives Kill.” The New York Post echoed that sentiment with a front-page headline that read “Civil War.”
Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani labeled the Black Lives Matter movement “inherently racist” and “anti-American” in an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation. Giuliani attempted to downplay racist police brutality by claiming that the real problem in America is “black-on-black violence.” “The real danger to black children, Giuliani said, trotting out a made-up statistic, “ninety-nine out of one hundred times, is other black kids who are going to kill them.”
Worse was former US Representative Joe Walsh, a Tea Partier and right-wing radio host who took to social media to threaten violence against not only the Black Lives Matter movement, but Barack Obama. “This is now war,” Walsh wrote. “Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
If Walsh was a person of color, and the president he threatened was white, he would be in jail by now. But then again, he wouldn’t be speaking for “real America” — by which Walsh meant racist America.
After the killings of police in Dallas and the furious backlash that has ensued, we need protest more than ever to push back against the ideological onslaught that seeks to silence those who demand justice for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling — in order to amplify talk about the “brave” cops who supposedly put their lives on the line.
In reality, the occupation of police officer doesn’t even crack the top ten list of most dangerous jobs in America. According to FBI statistics, 2015 was one of the safest years on record to be a cop — tying 2008 for the second-lowest death rate for police on record.
The call echoing through the media that “Blue Lives Matter” is designed to make black lives matter less. As Natasha Lennard wrote at Rolling Stone:
In the same week when thousands of us took to the streets to once again insist that Black Lives Matter, events in Dallas will force a number of false equivalences to be drawn. First among them is that if we say Black Lives Matter, we must say in the same breath Blue Lives Matter.
I won’t say Blue Lives Matter, because it does not need to be said. We know this because the death of five officers this week provoked an immediate response from the president, as did the assassination of two NYPD officers in 2014. That’s what mattering looks like. While the president’s remarks earlier in the week on the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were moving, dozens of unarmed Black men killed by cops go without presidential comment. For instance, U.S. police killed more than 100 unarmed Black men last year alone. The fact that there are too many such killings for Obama to speak to individually? That’s what not mattering looks like in a society.
Pundits and politicians who conveniently ignore the deaths of Sterling and Castile and so many other victims of police brutality — or, worse, suggest that some of those victims somehow had it coming — should be denounced in the loudest terms.
Castile, Sterling, and the hundreds of others killed by police this year aren’t dead because they didn’t comply quickly enough or resisted or gave the cops an attitude. Their deaths are attributable to a system in which police repression goes hand in hand with systematic racism and discrimination.
In the coming days and weeks, those opposed to racism and police brutality will have to work even harder to build the movement — and push back against the slanders of those who want to claim that we, not they, are promoting violence.
Originally published at Socialist Worker.