December 3, 2016

Blue Lives and Black Lives: What's in a Slogan?

Over Thanksgiving, my daughter came home from college. While driving through our neighborhood, she noticed a "Blue Lives Matter" flag and said she'd like to talk to the homeowner, or perhaps drop off a letter, about why it is a harmful symbol. I asked her if she'd be interested in putting a message together because I, too, would like to read it.

My daughter brings a foundation to this subject, which includes: A research assistant internship with the Metropolitan Planning Council (emphasis on housing segregation issues), and a double major at DePaul University (Public Policy Studies and History of Art and Architecture). In addition, she has personally observed the Cook County Circuit Bond Court, volunteers with prison support groups, writes to people who are incarcerated for political and non-political crimes, has participated in several anti-discrimination protests, and strives to reach people with differing views on police funding/abolition without alienating them. Here is her letter:

Dear Neighbor,

I noticed the "Blue Lives Matter" flag in front of your house and hoped I could talk to you about it. It is probably safe to assume that you feel strongly on this topic because someone you love is a police officer, or because you value the services the police provide to your family and community. It makes sense, therefore, why you feel it's important to stand up for police in what appears to be a hostile climate of anti-police sentiment. I want to mention some things that I hope will explain this climate, and why I think your flag is harmful.

"Black Lives Matter" began as a slogan, a hashtag, on the internet, created by black activists in response to the police shootings of unarmed black men and women. It is simple and to the point: In this country, black people face certain challenges and obstacles based on the color of their skin that non-black people do not face.
Background: Black people were brought to this country as slaves. Even after slavery ended 150 years ago, they were denied certain legal rights solely because they were black. It goes beyond laws forcing the use of separate bathrooms: Black people were denied mortgages, lines of credit to open businesses, access to quality schools, and more because of the color of their skin.* Generations past the time of slavery, as recently as the civil rights acts of the 1960s only 50 years ago, black people were legally barred from the same kind of economic and social development as non-blacks.

Result: Imagine if no one you knew or were related to ever owned their home. Or had enough money to get a college degree, or had good enough credit to get a loan. Not because of something they did wrong, but because of their race! This is why "Black Lives Matter."

What Black Lives Matter does NOT mean:
The only lives that matter are black ones.
Black lives are more important than the lives of police officers.

Why the slogan Blue Lives Matter misses the salient point:
Criticism that police receive for the bad behavior of some officers is not equal to centuries of legal and social repression of black people based solely on skin color. 
There is, really, no such thing as a "blue life." Police officers decided to put on a uniform. They can also take it off.
Police officers do not face economic repression, segregation, and violence for something that they have no control over.
Police are generously funded by, and have the full support of, the government. They are not disenfranchised. And as employees of the public, they are not beyond criticism by the public.
To say "Blue Lives Matter" is to speak over and dismiss the voices of black Americans who are working for a more just future for their communities. If we cannot say openly and proudly that black lives do matter in America, then we are saying that they do not matter.

I am sure the person you love who is a police officer does his or her job admirably, with a desire to serve the public. Important: You can support this person and the community of police who are responsible and honest public servants without undermining and fighting back against racial justice. To do otherwise is to place yourself on the wrong side of history, with the segregationists and all others who fought against repairing the wrongs that have been done by our country to black people.

* Recommended reading: American Apartheid, Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton;
http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674018211

Kristen French