By India Thusi
Cornell Law Review Online
It was fifteen years after the second millennium, and civil unrest rocked our nation’s cities following the police shootings of several unarmed Black people. Protestors were demanding respect for the lives of Black people and chanting, “Black lives matter,” in cities such as New York, Detroit, Baltimore, and Ferguson. New technology enabled Black communities to record and broadcast police treating their bodies as strange fruit to be thrown away. Armed with smart phones that function as guerilla film equipment, marginalized communities were able to instantly document and broadcast the pain of police violence. But make no mistake; this pain was not new. Black communities have long complained about police violence in their communities. In the late 1960s, there was civil unrest in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, and Harlem following the police harassment of Black communities. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) noted, “Almost invariably the incident that ignites disorder arises from police action. Harlem, Watts, Newark and Detroit–all the major outbursts of recent years–were precipitated by routine arrests of Negroes for minor offenses by white police.”
But now, these displays of police violence were finally being documented and broadcast for all to see. With this fresh evidence in hand, Black communities were able to visually prove the unjust policing that they have experienced since this nation’s founding. Previously, many media outlets depicted police violence as exceptional incidents done by bad apples and the Black victims of police violence as subhuman creatures in need of taming. The string of cellular videos from 2014 to 2017 challenged these portrayals. Americans literally witnessed these killings, either through recorded cellular videos or live broadcast through social media platforms. Upon witnessing these incidents of police violence, all Americans could unite in collective action to ensure that Black souls would feel the protection of the law, not just the violence of it. Witnessing the despair prompted by police killings should be enough to generate empathy, right?
Americans could no longer continue to tolerate the killing of Black people at the hands of the police, right?
Surprisingly, the killing of unarmed Black people by the police has sparked a national narrative about the suffering of police officers. In true dystopian form, police officers killing unarmed Black people has inspired the return of legal lynchings and the perception that police are the real victims of inequality. While protestors demanded more police accountability and chanted that we need to recognize that “Black Lives Matter,” counterprotestors responded “Blue Lives Matter.” “Blue Lives Matter” has become the rallying call for those offended by the suggestion that we should hold the State accountable for killing civilians. According to a December
2016 poll, 61% of Americans believed that there was a “war on police,” and 68% of Whites had a favorable view of the police as compared to 40% of Blacks. In fact, lawmakers around the country have been proposing Blue Lives Matter laws that make it a hate crime to kill or assault police officers. This strange twist of events is perverse given the social context. Why should the police be viewed as victims in need of additional protection at precisely the same moment that many have questioned their victimization of Black communities? This Essay considers this question and argues that “Blue Lives Matter” is evidence of the permanence of racism as a juridical and discursive matter in this country.
Picture: Alessandra Notaro, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons