Blue Lies Matter: Exposing Police Propaganda and the Right’s Assault on Justice

It’s always easier to be thought of as a hero, I suppose. The adulation, the uncritical praise, the unadorned love and devotion of millions must be nice; and especially when you’ve grown rather used to it. In the wake of 9/11 — after which tragic day millions of Americans began donning NYPD caps and shirts — such was the life of police officers in America.

So it must be difficult, being brought back to Earth from that place in the nation’s moral stratosphere to which you had been previously elevated, forced to breathe regular air rather than the rarefied form to which you had grown accustomed. It must be jarring to confront the fact that for millions of others, who never bought the caps or shirts, police are not perceived as their friends or protectors, let alone as heroes. Indeed, for millions of those others, they never were; the image never fit with their lived reality, their own experiences attesting to a very different history: one in which law enforcement was typically the first line of mistreatment and oppression. As memory reminds us and as Jill Nelson’s anthology on past and present police brutality documents in painstaking detail:

Police enforced the infamous Black Codes and every aspect of segregation. They were the ones pulling peaceful protesters off of lunch counter stools, turning vicious dogs on the same, and even murdering civil rights workers who dared stand up for justice.

Police participated openly in the brutal lynching of black men and women as well as community-wide pogroms — white-on-black race riots — throughout the first several decades of the twentieth century.

Police assassinated activists fighting for liberation and black self-determination, including at least twenty-seven members of the Black Panther Party, often with the open collaboration of federal agents.

More recently, police have repeatedly engaged in illegal activity, planting evidence on suspects to frame them, as with the Ramparts division scandal in Los Angeles; or protecting drug runners and dealing drugs themselves as in New York’s infamous 75th precinct, or in New Orleans, murdering those who file complaints against them or indiscriminately slaughtering innocent civilians and then covering up the crime as happened on the Danziger bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Police enforce the war on drugs, which has disproportionately targeted people of color, even though according to every study and at every age level, whites use and deal drugs at the same or higher rates than the black and brown. Indeed, one former DEA agent and federal marshal has admitted that he was specifically instructed not to enforce drug laws against white people.

Police engage in profiling and stop-and-frisk, harassing almost exclusively innocent persons so as to get at the statistical few that have actually committed a crime. In part, these practices are the result of a police culture that rewards officers for the number of arrests they make, rather than the number of conflicts they resolve peacefully or for actually having a positive impact on local crime rates. Indeed, cop culture places such an emphasis on control and domination of civilians — as opposed to de-escalation of tension and conflict resolution — that even some law enforcement organizations are beginning to acknowledge the problem.

Police in Ferguson, Missouri functioned for years as the enforcers of a massive municipal shakedown scheme, in which black residents were disproportionately targeted for minor offenses, ticketed and then fined so as to raise money for local government. Cops there essentially operated as revenue collectors, financing city services on the backs of the black and poor. And of course, in the wake of the uprising in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown, police responded to protests by deploying military equipment and tactics, sending a message that they were essentially at war with their own people—tactics that even law enforcement partisans are now admitting only escalated the crisis and contributed to occasionally violent counter-reactions by some protesters.

Police threaten to kill black folks and hide the evidence, but are allowed to keep their jobs anyway (as with a recent case from Alabama). Others seem to have a penchant for posting blatantly racist and even homicidal rants on their social media pages or in text messages, in town after town across America: dozens of such cases in the past year that we know of, including one particularly egregious case in San Francisco, in which a group of officers exchanged messages calling African Americans “monkeys” and declaring that all blacks (whom they certainly didn’t refer to in that way) “must hang.” Or another case from Albuquerque where an officer who shot and killed a suspect after a traffic stop referred to his profession as “human waste disposal” on Facebook. And in some of these cases, the racist cops have also been allowed to keep their jobs or to get them back after being fired, as recently happened in Florida.

Police in the all-too-present day beat black suspects without cause and then lie about it, or plant evidence to cover up their misdeeds, or respond to the least verbal challenge with violence, as in the case of Eric Garner who was killed by a Staten Island cop by way of neck compression, simply for telling police to stop harassing him.

Police have too often shot first and asked questions (or not) later, and are far quicker to shoot unarmed black folks than unarmed whites. Or to shoot children like Tamir Rice, playing with a toy gun and then lie about the incident. The shooting of Rice, in which the 12-year old was initially described as being in his twenties, gives horrific specificity to recent research which found that police routinely tend to view black boys they encounter as being considerably older (and thus potentially more dangerous) than they really are, even equating them to apes; and this association has a direct correlation with racially-disparate treatment meted out to such youth.

And when challenged on this behavior, when confronted with the anger that police by their actions have sown, those same cops — people whom we are told are tough and strong, and this is why they became cops in the first place — whine like children, unable or unwilling to withstand criticism. Or they insist that such criticism, regardless of the actions that brought it forth, is by definition hateful or responsible for anything bad that happens to an officer from that point forward. Because police, we are to believe, are brave enough to face bullets and bad guys but not analysis and arguments. That police are increasingly being called to account for their improper and illegal actions — with a five-fold increase in indictments in just the past few months — suggests that the calls for reform and greater scrutiny are working. And to police and their supporters, that’s the problem.

Recently we’ve heard police spokespersons and conservative talking heads blame the growing movement against police brutality and racism for the shooting of officers in Texas and Illinois. Because the Black Lives Matter movement — a loosely affiliated network of activists in more than two dozen chapters — has been raising the issue of police misconduct and the disproportionate use of force against persons of color, we are then to believe that when someone kills a cop it was obviously the fault of “rising anti-police rhetoric,” or some such thing.

Because until Black Lives Matter, apparently, police were never killed on the job.

Except for the fact that of course they were, and indeed, more often than they have been since BLM burst on the scene. Indeed, according to the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund, the first half of 2015 saw a twenty-five percent drop in the number of police officers shot and killed relative to the first half of 2014. In other words, since the rise of BLM, fatal shootings of police have not increased, but exactly the opposite. Even after the last week, during which the shootings outside Houston and in Fox Lake, Illinois occurred, the fact remains that when compared to this same point in 2014, fatal shootings of officers are down from thirty to twenty-six, two of which were accidental deaths during training exercises.

Although CNN recently reported that on-duty police deaths are up (from seventy-three to eighty-five) in 2015 compared to last year, this number is not mostly due to the homicidal acts of criminals, but because of a spike in vehicular deaths, and health-related emergencies like heart attacks on the job. For instance, according to the same law enforcement group mentioned above, law enforcement deaths in 2015 have included thirty-five traffic accidents and twenty-one medical emergencies. Specific incidents (which are catalogued on their website) have included an officer who died when his cruiser hit a deer, another who collided with a cement mixer, another who died exercising at the department gym, another who had a heart attack shoveling snow at a detention center, two who died from cancer contracted while helping evacuees at the World Trade Center on 9/11, one who died from injuries sustained ten years earlier while breaking up a fight, another who died during surgery to repair damage sustained twelve years prior on the job, and one who had a heart attack while detailing his police motorcycle. Obviously none of these incidents can be blamed on Black Lives Matter, although in the last case, the officer was detailing his motorcycle in preparation to serve on an upcoming presidential escort in Kansas, so, ya know, thanks Obama.

Given the disproportionate numbers of officers who died because of automobile accidents or heart attacks, unless someone has evidence that BLM organizers are tampering with police brake lines, or putting extra cholesterol in the doughnuts, it’s sorta hard to imagine how those incidents, tragic though they are, can be blamed on the group, let alone “anti-police rhetoric.”

Of course, the claim by police to that effect was never meant to be examined seriously. It is merely propaganda intended to deflect attention from the very real cases of misconduct and improper use of force against people of color that have been prominently in the news of late. And this we know because interestingly, when cops are killed by white men, those killings are given far less attention by conservative pundits, no doubt because they can’t be linked in the public mind to black activism. For instance, when a Louisiana State Trooper was killed last month by a 54-year old white male (who it appears had also just killed his roommate), the blame-Black-Lives-Matter bunch went silent. So too after the killing of a police sergeant in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho by a white guy with a mile-long rap sheet. Had either of them been killed by black men, as with the trooper in Houston, there’s little doubt that the right would have sought to make the connections, but when white guys kill police, the incidents are viewed as isolated, and the perps merely deranged individuals holding no grudges save the personal. Even white criminals then enjoy a kind of privilege.

No, the entire enterprise is one of political pandering, rooted in a desire to turn the public against Black Lives Matter and black activism more broadly, in the hopes of discrediting the struggle against racism and inequality, whether in the criminal justice system or any other part of American society. It’s a tactic borrowed from a longstanding conservative playbook, and indeed the same kind of accusations — that civil rights activists were fomenting hate and violence — were leveled against Dr. Martin Luther King for years, by those who opposed the movement of which he was a part.

Of course, no right-wing dog whistles would be sufficient unless they included a healthy dose of Obama-bashing. And so we have the blatant politicization of recent cop killings by Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who has blamed President Obama for inflaming anti-police sentiment. This, even as the president has openly condemned these killings and immediately phoned the widow of officer Goforth in Houston after he was murdered last week. This, even as it was the president’s Justice Department that cleared officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson. This, even as the killing of police has dropped measurably during the president’s time in office, with only forty-eight officers being shot and killed in the line of duty last year, compared to seventy in 2007, before he had so much as carried a single primary.

Among those paying attention or given to caring about things like facts, it should be obvious that Black Lives Matter does not advocate violence against police. Although individual participants in a BLM action in St. Paul chanted an admittedly offensive chant, taunting police, while marching on the Minnesota State Fair last week, this was hardly representative of the movement as a whole (or even in the Twin Cities). It’s not as if Black Lives Matter has a hymnal of approved chants and songs, which they teach to one another to boost morale. Absolutely none of the shooters of officers in the past year have been linked to the movement, or indeed any antiracist activity or organization, let alone BLM. In the case of Officer Goforth in Houston, his killer appears to have long suffered from mental illness. But blaming the killing on that isn’t as politically bankable as blaming it on black activists, and so such details as these are conveniently downplayed in favor of the preferred narrative.

Not to mention, to suggest that Black Lives Matter is somehow responsible for the killing of police is to fundamentally insult the intelligence of black America; it is to suggest that in the absence of BLM calling attention to cop misconduct, black folks wouldn’t already know anything about it. It is to suggest that black folks were perfectly happy with the way law enforcement treated them until last August when suddenly a group of crafty activists poisoned their minds and made them want to go on a murderous cop-killing spree. That such a notion could only be believed by those who have almost no experience interacting with black folks (at least not black folks in black communities) should be obvious, and no doubt explains why the argument has such purchase on FOX News.

And finally, of course, by the logic of those who blame Black Lives Matter for violence against police, we would have to then blame those who call for school reform or teacher accountability for every school shooting or assault on a teacher. We would have to blame Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform — or perhaps every conservative in America — for the fact that Joe Stack flew a plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas a few years ago as an act of political protest. We would have to blame nuns for abortion clinic bombings and the murder of abortion providers, simply because the former typically oppose the procedure. Needless to say, none of the conservatives who would place the blame for police killings at the feet of BLM would much like linkages such as these, but they are certainly at least as strong if not stronger than the one the right is seeking to make.

Meanwhile, as conservatives take aim at Black Lives Matter, they ignore (or even praise) those like rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters who openly and brazenly pointed loaded weapons at law enforcement officials last year when the government sought to collect grazing fees that Bundy had been running out on for years. To the right, Bundy and his makeshift militia were heroes, even “freedom fighters,” notwithstanding their clearly articulated willingness to shoot and kill federal agents.

Likewise, they have been disturbingly silent about the Stetson-wearing wanna-be cowboy in Texas who just this week uploaded a video to YouTube in which he announced his plan to kill BLM activists, and really any activists at all who were protesting racism.

So long as the right remains silent about those real threats of violence made by whites against law enforcement and in the last case against black folks, their ventilations about anti-police rhetoric by Black Lives Matter, and their attacks on the burgeoning movement for racial justice and equity should be seen as what they are: naked propaganda in the service of institutional white supremacy and the maintenance of the status quo.

I’m told there are limits to shamelessness, but with the recent accusations against BLM by cops and their PR flacks in the right-wing media, I’m starting to doubt it.

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