Black Lives Matter. It is mystifying to me that such a basic affirmation can be considered divisive. And yet there have been many who react to this affirmation defensively. Many interpret the irrefutable phrase into a negation of its opposite, as if it were an inflammatory, anti-white or anti-police rallying cry. That twist is just an attempt to deflect the true, simple message: Black Lives Matter. The slogan arose in reaction to George Zimmerman’s acquittal for shooting Trayvon Martin because the boy somehow looked “threatening” with his hoodie and his Skittles. It became a rallying cry when the Feguson police killed Michael Brown and the New York police choked Eric Garner, and none of the involved officers was indicted. Black Lives Matter expresses the simple inarguable belief that it is unacceptable for society in general, and law enforcement in particular, to treat black people’s lives as expendable. It is an expression that our country’s centuries of racist subjugation must end.
We’ve written here about many of the way that police officers treat minorities, particularly black people, as if their lives did not matter, through: unwarranted police shootings, police officers neglecting to offer immediate medical care to their shooting victims, officers using excessive force, and racial profiling. A movement in response, aimed at calling national attention to this misconduct and demanding change, is not anti-white or anti-police. It is anti-violence. It is pro-United States Constitution.
So how are police departments responding to the spotlight being shined on unwarranted police shootings and police brutality? In New York, the Police Commissioner and police union leaders are seeking more severe penalties for Black Lives Matter protesters. First, they are seeking to change the very subjective crime of “resisting arrest” from a misdemeanor to a felony. This would mean that a protester could face anywhere from probation to life in prison for something as minor as shrugging off a police officer who grabs him. The NYPD bosses are also asking that the legislature make assaulting an officer at a public protest, like a Black Lives Matter rally, into a Class B felony, which would carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison. Let me make it clear that we oppose assaulting police officers. But this proposed change would make the crime significantly more serious in New York than, say, second degree murder or rape. Such a severe penalty against protesters is an attempt to chill dissent, plain and simple.
And stifling the Black Lives Matter movement seems to be at the heart of a lot of policing around the protests. Here’s an example from a Chicago protest march. Last December, about two hundred Black Lives Matter supporters were marching on a busy sidewalk, obeying all traffic signals. When the police stopped them, they asserted their right to march by chanting, “Green light, we have the right!” One protester, Keisha Hankerson, was pushed from behind by a restless crowd and stumbled into the street. She does not remember touching anyone, but realizes that she may have. She was immediately arrested in front of a large group for assaulting a sergeant (the accusation was that she intentionally collided with him). Her arrest was one of many, including two felony cases that are still pending. National Lawyers Guild attorneys defended Ms. Hankerson as part of their Mass Defense Project which provides free or low-cost legal representation to people arrested at protests. At trial, the judge found Ms. Hankerson not guilty, but the intimidation factor cannot be minimized. Imagine it: being booked, charged, held in jail if you can’t afford bail, taking time off work for a criminal trial, facing possible prison time and a criminal record. And now police officers want to elevate the penalties even higher?
Make no mistake, we are opposed to anyone attacking police officers. But the best way to restore order in this time of unrest is not to crack down on legitimate protesters; it is to demand that law enforcement stop behaving as if black lives do not matter.