Wednesday, May 20, 2015
If you happen to follow Donna Ladd on social media, you may know that she's been reporting in New York City this month. I got a chance to join her for a few days, and the experience has made clear to me something that seems to be causing confusion for some people nationwide.
Most of this clarity occurred on Saturday, May 9, which started when Donna and I stopped in a deli for breakfast. While there, we happened across the New York Daily News, which had as its headline, "Cops' Lives Matter, Too." The cover photos were from the funeral of Officer Brian Moore, the young NYPD cop who was killed in the line of duty just weeks ago.
I had a little extra insight into the funeral on Long Island because Donna had attended it; one of the things she had already told me was how powerful and heartbreaking the ceremony for Officer Moore had been. From the thousands of uniformed cops at attention, to the streams of well-wishers in and outside the church, to the procession of family and police commissioners, to the nine-helicopter flyover, to the bagpipers, to the playing of "Taps" at the end, the ceremony seemed designed to make one thing clear to the friends and family of Brian Moore: His life mattered.
Thousands, perhaps millions, are mourning his death.
And that's because his life did matter. His life and all cops' lives matter to many, if not all of us. The vast majority of Americans in this country value the lives of the officers who swear to protect us and uphold the law; sometimes in media, culture, and the eyes of the law, cops' lives are even seen as more valuable than the average citizen.
After hearing Donna's description, and then seeing the photos on the New York Daily News under the banner "Cops' Lives Matter, Too," I couldn't help but wonder what, exactly, the Daily News was thinking. In particular, the use of the word "Too" is troubling, as they apparently decided to push back on the "Black Lives Matter" movement. It's gratuitous, adversarial and, quite frankly, I feel bad for the family of Officer Moore that their pain was used in such a political way.
As it turned out, some other people had similar thoughts. After finishing our rolls and coffee, we headed to Columbia University, where the "Let Us Breathe" Forum was underway. ("Let Us Breathe" references the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island last year, when he repeatedly told officers he couldn't breathe as they held him in a chokehold on the ground. He died following the takedown.)
Backed by the North Star Fund, the forum was designed to bring together a number of different organizations for the purpose of building leadership—particularly black-led organizing—that can help the neighborhoods in New York become more safe and economically just, and to push back against policies such as quality-of-life violations that some say lower crime, and that others believe have led to disproportionate arrest and conviction records for people in minority communities.
Soon enough, the Daily News cover came up. Folks in this room were some of the very people who have pushed the "Black Lives Matter" idea for the purpose of raising awareness of situations where it seems that minority lives are not valued as highly because, unlike in the case of the most tragic murders of police officers, the officials suspected of causing the deaths are often not even indicted.
It isn't simply a matter of "blue lives" versus "black lives." It's a very serious assertion that the country needs to value the lives of non-white people as highly as it values those of whites. Likewise, it needs to value the lives of those who live in poverty and work to improve the situation for all Americans.
Gov. Phil Bryant weighed in with a guest column in The Clarion-Ledger this past week, taking a less-than-nuanced opportunity to cast the issue politically. "It is becoming apparent that a deadly conflict now exists between the criminal class and law enforcement across America. Make no mistake, this is not a racial conflict or a new civil rights movement by a group of Americans segregated and abused. This is an attack on law enforcement...," he wrote.
There's clearly no excuse for the horrible murders of Hattiesburg officers this past month. I'm very confident that most people who believe that "black lives matter" also mourn the lives of those officers. But portraying this as a clear sign that "a deadly conflict now exists" is irresponsible and divisive, just as the Daily News' cover was. It creates an us-versus-them paradigm where we're supposed to choose a side rather than come together to solve the problems and inequities that create conditions for crime, while holding all criminals—and the small percentage of irresponsible police officers—fully accountable for their actions.
Another "War on..." declaration isn't what we need now. We don't need more "tough on crime" rhetoric or more mandatory sentencing or more stop-and-frisk or more military weaponry for cops. What we need is (a) to train cops to better handle situations that are confrontational but not life-threatening to them and (b) to learn to value the lives of everyone in our society.
As the moderator of comments on the JFP website, I've noticed the apparent vigor that some of our commenters put into finding any conceivable defense for how things happened for Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Courtney Harris (shot instead of tasered in Tulsa County, then told "F*ck your breath"), Walter L. Scott (shot in the back eight times in South Carolina) or Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Some were petty thieves; some were belligerent. But the bottom line is that, in all of these cases, the "death penalty" wasn't warranted by the crimes.
At the "Let us Breathe" forum, a woman (who became an activist when her aunt was killed in a mistaken drug raid on her home) stood at the microphone during a Q&A session and held up the Daily News cover. She was upset, but she never indicated that cops don't matter; she, too, wants people invested in the idea that all lives matter, including those of people of color who commit minor crimes or talk back to the police.
There are some great people working on these issues in New York, just as there are in Jackson and nationally. The solution is for leaders to start listening to citizens and enabling their solutions, instead of plugging their ears, declaring a "war" and blocking any effort at progress.
Choosing sides isn't the answer; seeing the value in everyone is.
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