On Monday, in the same city in which Alton Sterling, a 37 year-old Black man, was killed by the police and three police officers were killed by a civilian, the “Blue Lives Matter” law that essentially seeks to transform Black Lives Matter protestors into enemies of the state went into effect. A similar bill was introduced in the New York State Assembly today. There is also a federal bill. These bills, which classify the targeting of police officers as a hate crime, not only turn the concept of hate crimes on its head by equating a well-protected class of civil servants with traditionally marginalized and attacked groups, they also create even more protection for police officers and other first responders. What’s wrong with this?
If a state wanted to send a message that Black lives don’t matter unless they’re cops, this is probably the best way to do it.
With or without an unnecessary law like this, the process should be exactly the same whether you are an accused cop killer or a killer cop: you are arrested, charged, tried, and if found guilty, sentenced. But the reality is that the two types of killings are treated in dramatically different ways, ways that make painfully clear that blue lives are valued way more than Black ones in our society. Police officers are less likely to be arrested, charged, indicted, tried, or convicted than accused civilians, especially if those civilians are Black.
If we’re honest with ourselves, it seems clear that anyone accused of killing a police officer will be going to jail, but when police officers kill civilians, no one can say with certainty that they will even be indicted (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Shelly Frey), much less convicted (Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, Freddie Gray) and go to jail (Akai Gurley). This is the unofficial, long-standing Blue Lives Matter policy; one that provides far greater protections to law enforcement after a killing happens than to anyone else in our society. It doesn’t need legislation, state proclamations, or a national outcry about police killings in order to operate. It is the status quo.
These bills are trending like hashtags in state legislatures, often, as in Louisiana, due to fears of “increased attacks” against police officers – despite the fact that police killings are at an historic low.
Moreover, while Blue Lives Matter laws are an unneccesary solution to a non-existent problem, they exacerbate other problems. The Louisiana Hate Crime law now includes “employment as a law enforcement officer or firefighter” on the list of immutable characteristics that include race, gender, religion, color, sexual orientation, and national origin. Anyone who watched Sesame Street growing up can tell how one of these things is not like the other. Most categories are included because of historic, systemic, and sometimes state-sanctioned violence against people because of who they are.
Adding categories of jobs to this list doesn’t make sense in the slightest. In fact, to even entertain including them is an affront to near daily, myriad, incalculable micro and macro aggressions that people of color, queer folks, women, and religious minorities face. This is a key point when it comes to Black protest. The point is to demonstrate the way that the state perpetrates violence on Black and brown communities. And it certainly does.
Killer cops are only part of the problem. The Movement for Black Lives released a visionary policy platform that details the routine way in which Black communities are criminalized. It notes how law enforcement shields itself from accountability for violence, including sexual violence, in all manner of ways. For example, the platform notes that, "[s]exual assault is the second most commonly reported form of police misconduct, but the majority of departments have no policy or measures in place to prevent, detect or ensure accountability for this form of police violence disproportionately affecting Black women, cis and trans, gender nonconforming, and queer people. Accountability for police sexual harassment, assault, and violence is usually solely the responsibility of police departments and prosecutors, preventing many survivors from coming forward or obtaining justice."
Blue Lives Matter seeks to pitch law enforcement, as a job category, as victims. But the state cannot be both perpetrator and victim in our society. And the truth is that “Blue Lives” are an instrument of repression and violence against Black lives. Laws that pretend the inverse is true only underscore this truth.