Black Lives Matter began as a movement about ending fear — the fear that many black Americans feel when it comes to interacting with law enforcement. That fear may or may not be justified, but it’s real, and a society where innocent citizens live in fear of those who claim to keep them safe is a troubled one. But Black Lives Matter, or at least a nontrivial number of its proponents, has become a movement about instilling fear — sometimes in politicians, sometimes in “white people,” but mainly and most significantly in police.
Last week, a gunman in Dallas opened fire on police at the end of a Black Lives Matter demonstration, killing five officers and wounding several others. Micah Johnson, the shooter, told a hostage negotiator that he was angry on behalf of Black Lives Matter and “wanted to kill white people, especially police officers.” Johnson’s Facebook page revealed an affinity for black nationalism, and he followed a Facebook group called the “African American Defense League,” which encouraged followers to “ATTACK EVERYTHING IN BLUE EXCEPT THE MAIL MAN” and “sprinkle Pigs Blood.” Johnson seems to have been the mirror-image of Dylann Roof, the white nationalist who killed nine black people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last year.
And that fear compounds what officers have felt for going on two years. In June of last year, the New York Daily News editorialized: “Fear has taken hold of the New York Police Department. The city’s cops have grown afraid to do their jobs.” FBI director James Comey seemed to confirm that this year, in May, when he suggested that the “viral video effect” has led police to retreat from carrying out their duties.
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Given the heightened passions surrounding the alarming deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both shot dead by police last week, it was almost inevitable that this weekend’s protests would devolve into violence, and that’s precisely what happened. In Sterling’s Baton Rouge, 125 people were arrested; an officer struck with a projectile lost several teeth. In Chicago, protesters broke through a police barricade, and multiple people were arrested on charges of battery against police. And in Castile’s St. Paul, Minn., more than 100 protesters were arrested when protesters used an overpass over Interstate 94 to throw rocks and rebar at police, injuring 21 officers, including one who suffered broken vertebrae when a concrete block was dropped on him from above. When one officer was injured, protesters cheered: “One piggly-wiggly down!” If police are even more fearful after this weekend, they would not be without reason.
But Black Lives Matter is responsible for how it reacts to events such as Dallas. And the response of many was not only dismissal — Johnetta Elzie, one of the movement’s founding activists, suggested that Dallas was a false-flag operation by the federal government — but it pushed the agitation to an even higher pitch. That is, after Dallas, the response of activists was to willfully create the conditions that make violence more likely, not less. When tensions were high — perhaps as high as they have been since the movement began — Black Lives Matter opted to escalate the situation.
Some will suggest that this is necessary. “No justice, no peace!” as Black Lives Matter protesters regularly chant. Events in Dallas do not mean “justice” — so why would protesters be obliged to choose “peace”? They aren’t, of course. But unjust ends are not secured by unjust means, and many in the Black Lives Matter movement seem to have forgotten that.
The virtue of Black Lives Matter movement is that it is predicated on an act of imaginative compassion, in the best sense of that word: suffering together. At their best, the movement’s advocates call on those of us who do not know firsthand the fear that black Americans experience to imagine ourselves living their lives. That can be a powerful instrument for dissolving barriers and creating the humility that precedes positive change.
Yet, when police officers the nation over were more scared than they have been in years, many activists refused to suffer with them. They refused to imagine themselves living the lives of people whose job it is to confront dangerous, potentially deadly, situations day in and day out. Instead, in places such as St. Paul, they exploited that fear.In a word, what we saw on display was hypocrisy. Black Lives Matter activists refused to live up to their own call. This particular movement is regularly guilty of that failing. At the same time that many demand that law enforcement stop forming conclusions based on skin color, many activists form conclusions based solely on the presence of a badge.
There are, unfortunately, some who will suggest that the blood of cops is just recompense for the suffering of black Americans at the hands of police. Those people are not “protesters,” and they are not interested in justice or peace. One hopes that they are only a fraction of the Black Lives Matter movement.
For the rest, there has never been a better opportunity to practice the outreach that you have demanded of others. Of course black lives matter. Of course police lives matter. A spirit of conciliation, not antagonism, is the best way of protecting both.
— Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.