Politics & Policy

Finding Common Ground with Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter protester in St. Louis, Mo., March 14, 2015. (JIm Young/Reuters)
It’s not possible for conservatives to embrace the movement as a whole, but there are some overlapping goals.

Many Americans don’t know what to think about Black Lives Matter (BLM).

According to the Pew Research Center, 43 percent of Americans support the movement, and 22 percent oppose it — but a striking 30 percent have not heard of the movement or declined to offer an opinion. About a third (36 percent) of those who have heard of the movement say they don’t understand its goals well or at all.

Some of the ignorance of the movement and reluctance to opine on it might be explained by its relative youth. It developed two years ago in direct reaction to the police killings of two black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. A second possible explanation is its apparent disjointedness. Its radical and violent strain may be a minority, but it is a vocal and strong one. Another partially overlapping strain, encouraged by at least one of its founding members, seems uninterested in reconciliation between police officers and the black community. But some BLM members, perhaps even the majority, do desire reconciliation, have practical ideas, and perceive a real epistemic gap between black and white people that can be bridged only by humility and through relationships.

Black Lives Matter was founded by and consists largely of people with a progressive worldview. It is no wonder that people on the right are instinctively suspicious of the movement, if not outright opposed to it — not because of skin color, but because of ideology.

Indeed, the movement’s leaders and website cast a distinctively leftist vision; for example, the website states that BLM is

committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.

This statement exemplifies cultural Marxism. Though community support for broken families and their children is admirable and socially necessary, traditional conservatives recoil at the description of such situations as anything better than broken. It is precisely the “disruption” of traditional families that has rent so much of our social fabric, including in the black community.

BLM also cannot, either in its history or in its explicit purpose, be separated from the advancement of LGBTQ and radical-feminist agendas. The pan-liberationist, culturally progressive, radical thrust of BLM makes it incompatible with conservatism. Many Christian leaders likewise, though lamenting the church’s failure to spearhead reform and renewal for the black community, have exhorted the church to distance itself from BLM because of its social liberalism.

RELATED: Black Lives Matter Puts Feelings First, Evidence Last

But conservatives can nonetheless learn from the movement. The constructive policy proposals from Campaign Zero, a police-reform campaign led by activists associated with BLM, provide a chance for a genuine “dialogue,” and even real common ground. They also provide a potential starting place for a more conservative movement that could, among other things, be devoted to improving the relationship between law enforcement and African Americans.

BLM’s Campaign Zero was launched in August 2015, but just last week it added a tool to its website for people to contact their state representatives and advocate police-reform legislation.

The campaign advocates ten categories of police reform. A couple of them, such as ending broken-windows policing, are controversial on the right. But the majority, especially ending for-profit policing, training police in de-escalation techniques, and requiring police to exhaust non-lethal methods before resorting to potentially lethal violence when possible, are much less controversial.

BLM has been accused of causing strife without change. Campaign Zero challenges that accusation.

BLM has been accused of causing strife without change. Campaign Zero challenges that accusation. “In Orlando, Fla., we were directly involved in pushing for more restrictions to police use of force to ensure that force is not being used where it’s not necessary,” says Sam Sinyangwe, a policy analyst and data scientist on the Campaign Zero team. Orlando had the secondhighest rate of police-involved shootings of the 100 largest cities in 2014. The campaign’s push was successful. Orlando police chief John Mina has begun implementing reforms and has directed officers to use “only the minimal amount of force necessary.”

Since then, 28 states have enacted police-reform legislation endorsed by Campaign Zero. Connecticut has been exemplary, Sinyangwe said, by passing a fairly comprehensive package of reforms, including requiring independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, police body cameras, and the hiring of minority officers. At the federal level, BLM influenced the platforms of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley.

#share#Though racial tension has ratcheted up, police and criminal-justice reform are supported, with different but overlapping approaches, by Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians all. Of all major political issues facing the nation, criminal-justice and police reform should be among the least politically divisive. Despite divisions between blacks and whites, a chance for unity on these issues seems within reach.

And reform has been shown to be both appropriate and effective. In a sad irony, the Dallas police department, led by Chief David Brown, had been hailed as a national model for reform prior to the fatal shooting of five of its officers. Brown implemented restrictions on use of force, de-escalation training, and body cameras, and publicly fired bad officers. The department also eased enforcement of petty crimes and started communicating with protesters before protests. During Brown’s tenure, crime in Dallas has so far dropped more than it had under the leadership of any of the city’s previous 27 police chiefs. In 2014, the murder rate reached a 50-year low. Meanwhile, both use of force and citizen complaints about excessive force plunged.

‘Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve.’

— Dallas police chief David Brown

At a Monday presser, Brown put flesh on the bones of the common but vague complaint of “systemic” injustice against black people and communities. What does “systemic” mean here? Here is one possible example: “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve,” Brown said. “Not enough mental-health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug-addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose-dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well.”

“Policing was never meant to solve all those problems,” he said.

Every person with a conservative bone in his or her body should shudder when the government — in this case, the police — is handed problems to solve that fall outside its proper sphere.

RELATED: Black Lives Matter: Radicals Using Moderates to Help Tear America Apart

Take mental illness, one problem mentioned by Brown. One in five people killed by police have some form of mental illness, and many of those people are black and/or poor.

The Department of Justice found in 2006 that about 15 percent of state prisoners and a quarter of jail inmates report symptoms that meet the criteria for a psychotic disorder. The same year, the Bureau of Justice estimated that the mentally troubled constituted about half of all prisoners in state, federal, and local jail.

In 2012, there were ten times more mentally ill persons in jail than in hospitals.

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and criminal-justice researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that police are often the first people called to deal with a mentally ill family member. “Police get involved when other systems fail — that’s almost their job description,” he says. “Yes, we’ve failed. Neither side, left nor right, is willing to jump on that bandwagon. What do you do if you don’t have any resources?”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) published a 2011 report detailing states’ funding cuts to mental-health services. Between 2009 and 2011, states cumulatively cut more than $1.8 billion from their budgets for these services. During this period, California cut $587.4 million, Kentucky $193.7 million, New York $132 million, and Illinois $113.7 million.

When police respond to reports of mentally ill persons who are acting erratically or violently, their options for handling the situation are limited by their resources and their training. The dearth of resources for the mentally ill in the U.S. results in the greater expense of sustaining inmates who could have otherwise received treatment to control the condition that landed them in jail. In 2012, there were ten times more mentally ill persons in jail than in hospitals.

Conservative legislation, such as Tim Murphy’s recent mental-health bill, is a necessary part of the broader solution.

There’s another facet of police reform that should garner support from conservatives and libertarians: attenuating the power of police unions. Ed Krayewski points out at Reason that Campaign Zero’s proposals

will be impossible to achieve so long as police unions maintain their political power and collective bargaining privileges. . . . How will these unions react when it’s their own privileges being attacked? Police unions are a powerful, antagonistic political force when it comes to Black Lives Matter activists’ quest for police and criminal justice reform, and, importantly, such unions should not be allowed to exist in a democratic society where employees of the government are supposed to serve residents and not the other way around.

The leaders of Campaign Zero are very familiar with the challenge police unions pose to their reform efforts. Sinyangwe says, “The police unions are in many cases the groups that have backed the policies we have opposed and have contracts that make it harder to hold police accountable.”

#related#Conservatives are actually better ideologically positioned than progressives to propose better policy on a number of relevant fronts: holding all public officials accountable, confronting powerful police unions, promoting reform within government, and recognizing the distinction between misdeeds committed by state agents and those committed by citizens. And these are just some facets of the complex sociological problems facing black communities. Conservatives are already more committed to policies that strengthen the traditional family, for which there is simply no adequate substitute when it comes to individuals’ and communities’ flourishing.

It is a shame, then, that no conservative alternative to Black Lives Matter really exists. It isn’t enough to be pro-life and pro-family and to categorically oppose the failed progressive policies in cities such as Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago. Conservatives must organize to speak directly to the black community, with discernible unity, saying, “You as a group have been disproportionately oppressed by imperfect policing, unaccountable bureaucrats, the sexual revolution, bad public schools, bad housing, and other policy failures. I mourn with you, my brothers and sisters, and I will listen to you.” That would be a start.


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