Why Black Lives Matter keeps tripping up politicians — of both parties


Protesters rally in New York, on Nov. 24, 2014, after the grand jury reached a decision in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

One month and two major mass shootings ago, Judge James B. Gosnell Jr. shocked a lot of Americans. During a preliminary hearing for accused Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Gosnell called for kindness and sympathy — for Roof’s family.

“We have victims, nine of them. But we also have victims on the other side,” Gosnell said. “There are victims on this young man’s side of the family…”

It wasn’t long before a consensus seemed to emerge. Gosnell, a man known to have used the n-word in open court, had drawn an analogy so ill-timed and deeply flawed that it bordered on callous. Maybe Gosnell, a Southern judge, didn’t quite grasp the groundswell of unidirectional compassion for the grieving families of nine African Americans. But in the weeks that have followed, as a campaign aimed at forcing the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement into the 2016 campaign has intensified, that same uncertainty has surfaced again and again.

Most noticeably: Among presidential hopefuls.

At the very least, what we’ve seen is an incredible collection of awkward moments, faulty comparisons, equivocations and subtle-to-overt rejections of the ideas behind the Black Lives Matter movement. And that includes from Democrats who have long been the party that African Americans overwhelmingly support.

To really understand this phenomenon, first, let’s get a few facts out of the way.

Federal data on police killings and in custody deaths is very incomplete. And that has, without question, left room for some hyperbole, oversimplification and utterly inaccurate claims. But a 2012 FBI report (the most recent available) makes at least one thing exceedingly clear: Black Americans are the only group for whom arrest appears to also carry a disproportionate risk of death at the hands of police.

[How many police shootings each year? No one knows. Here’s why.]

Source: FBI Supplementary Homicide Report, 2012

In the first half of 2015 alone, 385 people were killed by police, The Washington Post reported recently. Of these, nearly 30 percent were black and 42 percent were black or Latino.

We also know that black Americans are disproportionately likely to be approached or stopped by policemore likely to be arrested when engaged in the same activities as white Americansmore likely to be prosecuted, and more likely to be jailed and to be sentenced to longer prison terms. And, if there is a problem with a police officer, the odds that that officer will face criminal prosecution are lower and actual jail time even lower, a recent Washington Post investigation found.

[Read The Washington Post’s April 15, 2015  investigation here: Thousands dead few prosecuted]

People can debate the reasons, but those are the facts. Police misconduct, for some black Americans, is source of unique terror and now, a political rallying cry.

With that established, let’s review just a few of the majorly awkward moments when it comes to people talking about and reacting to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Back in December, the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald — a vocal proponent of so-called proactive police tactics such as Stop and Frisk — declared Black Lives Matter to be a trite slogan distracting America from the real problem. According to MacDonald, that real problem is black-on-black crime. MacDonald described the Black Lives Matter movement this way just weeks after Americans had watched the riots and military-style police response in Ferguson, Mo.

Still, MacDonald does speak for a a sizable chorus of people who believe that black America’s attention and fear should be focused inward.

In the months since, all manner of derivations and challenges to the Black Lives Matter slogan and movement have emerged. The phrases “Confederate lives matter,” “Southern lives matter and “Animal lives matter are out there, circulating in the political ether and showing up on T-shirts. (In fairness, that last one has been out there a long time.) In Philadelphia just last month, a man organized “White Lives Matter,” protest attended by a city councilman, after a fight between a group of black women and one white woman.

All of that was part of the backdrop for that dust-up at the liberal Netroots Nation conference this month. It was messy and awkward. And activists made this much clear: From their point of view, two Democratic contenders for the White House — Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley — got their responses all wrong. Wrong language; wrong tone.

[What that Netroots disaster can tell us about Democrats in 2016]

The next week, perhaps sensing a political opportunity, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton used a Facebook chat to say, “Black Lives Matter.” She has said it a few times before, too. But when speaking in person, Clinton has also used language like “all lives matter” — an alteration that Black Lives Matter activists thinks undermines their case that black Americans face particular peril and deserve particular attention on this issue.

By late last week, former Florida governor Jeb Bush echoed the “all lives matter” variation. Bush also said O’Malley was wrong to apologize for saying that same slogan on stage at Netroots. Political correctness has run amok, Bush said.

The well-funded Bush and Clinton campaigns, their respective parties and super PACs likely have some focus-group insights revealing exactly what a new MTV documentary, titled “White People,” laid bare.

Despite ample evidence (see some of it in the chart below) that white Americans still occupy disproportionate seats at four-year universities, disproportionate shares of executive and high-paying jobs and have, on average, higher incomes, better living conditions and health care than most other Americans, there is a section of white America that feels devalued — even under attack.

Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics

These Americans think they suffer under programs like Affirmative Action — that minorities are given advantages not afforded to them. They claim there’s just too much attention, too much focus, too much spending on the needs of racial and ethnic minorities.

On Sunday, former Virginia attorney general and Senate Conservatives Fund head Ken Cuccinelli (R) echoed their concerns when he described Black Lives Matter as a poor message choice.

Then, consider what happened this weekend when some Black Lives Matter activists gathered in Cleveland. After a session, a group saw officers handcuffing and — some said — manhandling an allegedly-drunk 14-year-old black boy outside. Some began recording video. Officers say activists surrounded police and interfered. So a transit cop unleashed a stream of pepper spray.

Awkward is not even the word in this case.

By Monday, during a central Florida campaign swing in pursuit of Latino voters, Bush said he was unsure what was causing an uptick in high-profile cases involving possible police misconduct. He endorsed wide use of police dashboard cameras.

Which could be, at this point, the prudent middle ground on this issue.

What we have is a pretty clear situation in which many people — including some of the 2016 candidates, both Democrats and Republicans — seem weak-kneed when it comes to talking about race. They are unsure or uninterested in figuring out how to talk about race and policing. And, it seems, they are even more uncertain about just how sympathetic they can be to the concerns behind the Black Lives Matter movement without troubling other voters.

At least at this point, the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t changed that political reality.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/07/28/why-black-lives-matter-keeps-tripping-up-politicians-of-both-parties/

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