Over the weekend, a gunman shot and killed a sheriff's deputy in Harris County, Texas, in an apparent ambush. It's still not clear what the shooter's motive was, but it was the work of a man with multiple marks on his criminal record for which he served several short stints in jail.
Despite any solid leads and facts about the motives in the shooting of 10-year deputy veteran Darren Goforth, some conservative media outlets and local law enforcement officials have already settled on the real culprit: Black Lives Matter.
"We've heard black lives matter, all lives matter," Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said at a press conference following the shooting. "Well, cops' lives matter, too. So how about we drop the qualifier and just say lives matter?"
Fox News's Elisabeth Hasselbeck later wondered aloud on air why Black Lives Matter isn't considered a "hate group." Bill O'Reilly was more blunt, concluding the movement was indeed a "hate group." And Megyn Kelly characterized the movement as violent and anti-police in another segment.
Goforth's death is an enormous tragedy that merits the attention it's getting. But the rush to link his death to a movement focused on creating a more equal criminal justice system exposes some of the misconceptions and misleading criticisms surrounding the movement.
Black Lives Matter has nothing to do with killing police officers
The goals and message of Black Lives Matter have nothing to do with harming police officers in any way. The movement is explicitly concerned with reducing the racial disparities found in the criminal justice system. None of its leaders have advocated for killing cops.
It's entirely possible to simultaneously want to reduce police shootings and want to keep police officers safe. Black Lives Matter activists have proposed at least 10 policies that aim to hold law enforcement accountable without putting them in harm's way, ranging from ending aggressive low-level policing and instituting better police training to limiting standards for use of force and equipping cops with body cameras.
Currently, there is also absolutely no established connection between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Harris County deputy's death. But that didn't stop local officials from drawing a link. Consider the following facts from CBS News's report:
- In a nationally televised press conference, local officials repeatedly suggested that the Black Lives Matter movement was fostering hatred toward the police and caused the shooting. Sheriff Hickman, for instance, said anti-police rhetoric was "out of control" while referencing Black Lives Matter.
- Investigators have no information about a motive, according to the sheriff.
These facts are inherently contradictory. If there's no information about the motive, how can officials make any connection between the shooting and any movement, whether it's Black Lives Matter or something else? It's just blind speculation at this point.
But Fox News went with the narrative. A Fox & Friends segment on Monday suggested Black Lives Matter is a "hate group" and a "'murder' movement" because some protesters in Minnesota briefly chanted "pigs in a blanket" during a march after the Texas deputy's death. (A local Black Lives Matter organizer later said the chant lasted for 30 seconds, and that the movement doesn't advocate for anti-police violence.)
Fox News's Bill O'Reilly also made the connection on his Monday night show, calling Black Lives Matter "a hate group." (His two guests disagreed.)
And Fox News's Megyn Kelly and Katie Pavlich on Tuesday characterized Black Lives Matter as violent, with Pavlich calling it "a movement that promotes the execution of police officers."
By the sheriff's own admission, there's nothing establishing a motive or linking Black Lives Matter to the shooting. But by making the connection in his remarks, he planted the seeds that critics of Black Lives Matter and outlets like Fox News needed to cultivate and grow their big plant of bullshit.
It's not just Fox News — other reports painted narratives that put Black Lives Matter and police as inherently in conflict. A CNN report, for instance, described Black Lives Matter's advocacy as "anti-police rhetoric." What does it say about American society that advocating for black lives and ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system would qualify not as pro-equality but as anti-police?
Some of this seems to be rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the phrase "Black Lives Matter." It's not, as the sheriff suggested, that activists think black lives matter more and police (or white) lives matter less. It is already generally accepted in the US that cops' lives matter — police are among the most respected institutions in America, according to Gallup surveys. The message of Black Lives Matter, instead, is that black lives are currently undervalued relative to everyone else's, and the country needs to recognize that to bring an end to the disparity.
Reddit user GeekAesthete made this point in a thread explaining why the phrase "all lives matter" is offensive:
Imagine that you're sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don't get any. So you say "I should get my fair share." And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, "everyone should get their fair share." Now, that's a wonderful sentiment -- indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad's smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn't solve the problem that you still haven't gotten any!
Suggesting that Black Lives Matter is about going after individual police officers further reflects this misunderstanding — since the movement focuses on the systemic issues that influence individual police officers. The movement wants to fix the policies that lead to the overpolicing of black communities and the implicit dehumanization of African Americans. Under this view, it's not the individual cops who are to blame for disparities, but the system that pushes them to act out in unequal ways. So targeting individual officers does nothing to achieve the movement's broader goals, and in fact may detract from them.
But for all the speculation about Black Lives Matter driving violence against cops, the evidence suggests that cops are actually going through a relatively safe year.
2015 has been relatively safe for police officers
The Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks police officer deaths, estimates that there have been 83 line-of-duty deaths among police this year — down 2 percent from the same time period in 2014. Gunfire deaths in particular are at 24, down 20 percent from the same time period last year.
This is part of a long-term downward trend as the nationwide homicide rate declines. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported that on-duty police fatalities in 2014 totaled 117, up from a historic low of 107 in 2013 but down nearly 60 percent from a peak of 280 in 1974.
So since the Black Lives Matter movement rose to national prominence following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a year ago, there's no data suggesting that the long-term decline in police officers' on-duty deaths has stopped. It's time to stop making the connection.