Both the first and final nights of the Republican National Convention made it abundantly clear that the party is hell-bent on unifying in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump began his acceptance speech Thursday night, proclaiming, "I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country."
If there was doubt that Trump was slyly referencing Black Lives Matter, the Trump campaign's version of the speech made public linked this article about the recent protests against the extrajudicial killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to that statement.
Days earlier, in a Fox News interview that took place during the first night of the convention, Donald Trump said protesters were "essentially calling, ‘Death to police,'" when asked about the recent police shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Dallas (and like many statements by Trump, this is a lie).
Trump's inflammatory rhetoric was matched by Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a black law enforcement official and registered Democrat who has been a vehement opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement since the Ferguson, Missouri, uprising in 2014.
Immediately after opening his speech with, "Blue lives matter," Clarke paid tribute to officers recently killed, finding comfort in "some good news out of Baltimore, Maryland": Lt. Brian Rice, one of the Baltimore officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, was acquitted of all charges.
Clarke went on to condemn protests focused on officer-involved killings in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Baton Rouge as examples of "a collapse of the social order" and "anarchy." But the characterizations he and Trump touted Monday night are based on misunderstanding about the movement, not facts.
Without a doubt, the statements from both Trump and Clarke help propel the GOP nominee as 2016’s "law and order" candidate to "Make America Safe Again." But by mischaracterizing the movement for black lives, and its relationship to law enforcement, Clarke and Trump are christening Trump’s candidacy in ways that leave neither activists nor law enforcement officials safer in the process.
Black Lives Matter does not revolve around police officers
One of the problems with the rhetoric that the Black Lives Matter movement exists in opposition to police, exemplified by Clarke’s "blue lives matter" declaration, is that Black Lives Matter was not defined in opposition to police.
Yes, it’s true the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction following the extrajudicial killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. It’s also true that a parallel Blue Lives Matter movement was sparked at the same time by critics who felt that the focus on disproportionate police brutality against black people denied that "blue lives," or police lives, matter, too.
But the movement actually began a year earlier, on July 13, 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012.
With the racially disparate application of Florida’s controversial "stand your ground" law, Zimmerman was not immediately charged with killing Martin. Instead, it took 44 days and national outrage for local authorities to charge him.
The trial itself put racial bias within the criminal justice system on full display. Martin’s character was consistently attacked, as was his friend 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel. Meanwhile, Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, argued that his client acted in "non-racist ways" because "he took a black girl to the prom," and other weak arguments. O’Mara rested his case by saying, "Trayvon Martin did, in fact, cause his own death."
After Zimmerman was found not guilty, activist Alicia Garza mourned with a simple Facebook post at 7:14 pm: #blacklivesmatter. She would go on be one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter organization.
The term Black Lives Matter was in response to a moment in which not even the criminal justice system seemed to value a black child’s life. And yet the movement and phrase were created to address the broader spectrum of issues that systemically fail to affirm black people’s lives and dignity in society.
"#blacklivesmatter is a collective affirmation and embracing of the resistance and resilience of Black people," Garza wrote the following day. She continued:
it is a reminder and a demand that our lives be cherished, respected and able to access our full dignity and determination. it is a truth that we are called to embrace if our society is to become human again. it is a rallying cry. it is a prayer. the impact of embracing and defending the value of black life in particular has the potential to lift us all. #blacklivesmatter asserts the truth of Black life that collective action builds collective power for collective transformation.
The outcry in Ferguson, and the momentum generated around Black Lives Matter that followed the next year, highlighted how police brutality is a major component of that conversation. But the Black Lives Matter movement has never revolved exclusively around police, especially as more organizations sprout, taking on not only police reform but also economic justice and even tech diversity.
Black Lives Matter isn’t against "rule of law." Activists just want the laws to hold police accountable.
Clarke stressed that Black Lives Matter activists do not respect "the tradition of the primacy of the rule of law in America." Yet that couldn’t be further from the truth.
For activists addressing police brutality, the goal has been to make sure legal mechanisms are in place to ensure that law enforcement officials, not just civilians, face accountability for their actions.
"... [C]urrent laws, policies, and practices protect police behavior at all cost," DeRay Mckesson, an activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, told the Baltimore Sun after Baltimore officer Caesar Goodson Jr. was similarly acquitted of charges linked to Gray’s death at the end of June. "The work to create systems and structures that hold police accountable continues."
As it stands, police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available. Rather, as Vox’s Dara Lind has pointed out, the legal standards for lethal use of force "often boils down to what the officer believed when the force was used (something that is notoriously difficult to standardize), regardless of how much of a threat actually existed."
The difficulty in prosecuting such cases is illustrated by reports like one in 2011 by the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, which says only 32.8 percent of the 3,238 criminal cases filed against police officers between January and December 2010 resulted in a conviction — less than half the public conviction rate for criminal charges (68 percent). Among those rare convictions, only a little more than a third of them (36 percent) actually result in prison sentences.
These circumstances are perfect for the "rule of law" Trump and Clarke championed. The law, as it stands, puts the burden of proof on police officers to prove whether use of force was reasonable in the moment. The criminal justice system likewise does not suggest members of law enforcement will be held responsible even if criminal charges are brought against them.
But at the price of whose safety?
Police officers have killed at least 2,009 people since Ferguson as of earlier this month, and a disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black. This is why activists urge the discussion around use of force to account for racial disparities and implicit racial biases in policing practices.
Nonetheless celebrating yet another acquittal of an officer involved in the death of a civilian, particularly an African-American civilian, is not justice. It is instead a celebration of maintaining a social order that borders on impunity, with few (if any) mechanisms to ensure law enforcement serve and protect communities, instead of communities serving them.
Tensions are high. Over the course of just a few short days, July saw two high-profile killings of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Then, at the tail end of a protest against police brutality sparked by those deaths, a sniper targeted and killed five police officers in Dallas. And last Sunday, three officers were killed in Baton Rouge by a man law enforcement officials believe specifically targeted police officers.
But contrary to what Trump and Clarke said, neither shooter involved in the recent shootings of police officers was involved in the movement for black lives. And yet even as activists have condemned the violence against police because it is not a part of their movement, the fire between police and protesters is reignited — if for nothing more than political demagoguery.
"We simply cannot be great if we do not feel safe in our homes, on our streets, and in our schools," Clarke said. But safety, too, remains fleeting to many if Clarke, like the Republican presidential nominee, uses ideology to deflect from being honest about the most pressing social justice movement of our time.