The Associated Press reported Tuesday that a gun advocate in Maine used a play on the phrase “Black Lives Matter” to express his enthusiasm for gun ownership, with a sign on his lawn reading “Black Rifles Matter.”
In response to complaints from visitors to the town, the sign’s creator, Linc Sample, told NECN that his intention was to make statement against a proposed ban on assault weapons that he’d read about in a local paper. He added that the Black Lives Matter movement should be “flattered” by his twist on the phrase.
Sample is just one guy who likes guns — and decorating his lawn — but this is just one example of a bigger trend: the casual, confused co-opting of Black Lives Matter.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” has its origins in a 2013 Facebook post by activist Patrisse Cullors, responding to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin. It’s now the name of a national organization led by Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. On the group’s website they describe their work as “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” Black Lives Matter has also been used more generally as the rallying cry of those protesting police killings of unarmed African Americans over the past several years.
Samuel is not the first to use a variation of the term for something totally unrelated. Nor is he the first to be aghast at the idea that observers would find this offensive.
Another example: In July, Eater and the Washington Post reported on a restaurant in New Mexico that used “Black Olives Matter” on a billboard to advertise tapenade.
Restaurant's ill-advised 'Black Olives Matter' sign sparks controversy https://t.co/0DaMidouz3 pic.twitter.com/Net8X6xdVQ— Eater (@Eater) July 18, 2016
“I think it shows an interesting state of affairs of where our country is that people, first of all, can be offended by a statement about a vegetable,” the restaurant’s owner told NBC affiliate KOB4.
The offensiveness, of course, actually had nothing to do with olives. As Harold Bailey, president of the NAACP chapter in Albuquerque, said, “Unjustified killing of innocent Black men is nothing to joke about.”
That kind of failure to connect making light of Black Lives Matter to making light of what Black Lives Matter stands for is common. You can find examples of variations on this them, from the seemingly sincere Senior Lives Matter and Black Labs Matter to the more recent spotting of signs reading Deplorable Lives Matter — a response to Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment about bigotry among Donald Trump’s supporters.
It’s possible that many who are using twists on Black Lives Matter don’t mean any harm to the movement against police violence. Often, their responses to criticism seem to indicate that they really fail to understand (or bother to think about) the idea that the Black Lives Matter movement is largely in response to people being killed.
But once that’s made clear, it shouldn’t be too tough to understand why people are put off by BLM-inspired slogans.
After all, if you understand why using the anniversary of 9/11 to sell mattresses in a commercial with mock collapsing Twin Towers was inappropriately flippant about the loss of human life that occurred with the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, you should be able to understand why using a twist on Black Lives Matter or marketing a product to express an unrelated opinion or make a joke is similarly disgusting.
These remixed slogans and the cluelessness around why they’re troubling are just one example of widespread intellectual laziness around the Black Lives Matter concept.
Think of how it was reported that “Black Lives Matter” protesters interrupted Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary season, even without confirmation that African-American demonstrators had any link to the organization or movement. Or consider how the Los Angles Times used “Black Lives Matter victims” in a headline to describe mothers of people killed by police officers — conflating the movement to draw attention to racialized police violence with the violence itself.
Playing on “Black Lives Matter” to make a statement about gun rights, like “Black Olives Matter” and “Black Labs Matter” and the countless other examples of similar slogans, represents similarly lazy thinking. The perpetrators may or may not intend to mock the very serious issues underlying the original movement. But even if they don’t, the fact that they’re not able or willing to give them any consideration speaks volumes about the dismissiveness with which topics related to racial injustice are often treated.
It does, on some level, reflect the success of the Black Lives Matter organization and movement that the phrase is well-known enough to inspire all these different twists and imitations. But it’s also a reminder of how poorly understood it is, and the resistance that exists in many corners to taking seriously the issues that inspire it.