Besides local organizing and intersectional solidarity, the global racial justice movement Black Lives Matter has also triggered another effort: one claiming that it is police who are being unfairly targeted in our society.
Formed in December 2014 by four officers and their families, the Blue Lives Matter group seeks to “contradict the anti police philosophy and hatred that Black Lives Matter pushes out,” spokesperson and retired Las Vegas police lieutenant Randy Sutton told Rewire. It was started to combat the “false narrative” that law enforcement is “filled with racist officers” and “out of control violence-prone people” “hunting down Black men,” as well as the “lies” that Sutton said slogans like “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” perpetuate.
While the issue of whether Michael Brown raised his hands has been debated—a point that Sutton contests—Black Lives Matter has made it clear the group is not anti-police. The Black Lives Matter website explicitly addresses this assertion, saying, “This movement is not an anti-people movement; therefore it is not an anti-police-officer movement. Most police officers are just everyday people who want to do their jobs, make a living for their families, and come home safely at the end of their shift.”
It continues, “This does not mean, however, that police are not implicated in a system that criminalizes black people, that demands that they view black people as unsafe and dangerous, that trains them to be more aggressive and less accommodating with black citizens, and that does not stress that we are taxpayers who deserve to be protected and served just like everyone else.”
Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter are often painted as if they are fighting similar battles. Their roots are far from the same: One erupted after decades of institutional racism faced by Black people and the other, a backlash to that eruption, is fueled by reactionary politics.
The rhetoric surrounding the latter, however, has entered into at least 37 states where lawmakers have introduced bills seeking to increase penalties for offenses against law enforcement, according to a Rewire analysis.
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Sutton, who also hosts a Blue Lives podcast and TV show, told Rewire the group does not lobby for Blue Lives Matter bills but does support them online and via social media.
Whether or not the Blue Lives Matter group or its followers are behind the bills, two things are clear: In addition to being built on assertions about the Black Lives Matter movement that have been rebutted, the false narratives pushed by Blue Lives Matter supporters can inflict further harm on communities of color, according to racial justice advocates and law enforcement experts.
Thomas Mariadason, a director at the D.C.-based civil rights organization the Advancement Project, explained to Rewire via email that the number of police officers killed in the line of duty has declined in recent years, while the number of people—particularly people of color—killed by police without consequence has not.
“For groups like this to promote the narrative that any and all criticism of police tactics constitutes attacks on and a lack of respect for police officers is counterproductive, undemocratic, and hinders substantive efforts to fix this broken system,” he said.
It’s important to note that the Blue Lives Matter website is primarily concerned with publishing news stories and commentary with a heavy pro-police spin, Mariadason added, promoting a “dangerous” narrative.
“It’s very clear from the group’s mission statement that the group exists to blindly deny any wrongdoing by police officers. They identify [Michael Brown’s shooter] Darren Wilson as a ‘hero,’ paint Black Lives Matter protesters as ‘criminals’ and ‘murderers,’ and create the false sense that, because folks across the country are doing the important work of criticizing police policies and practices that lead to extrajudicial killings and impunity, police officers are under attack,” he said.
“It Completely Misses the Story”
The Blue Lives Matter group was founded after New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were ambushed and killed in their patrol car in 2014. Tensions escalated after the Dallas and Baton Rouge police attacks in 2016.
“We began simply as a Facebook page started by working Law Enforcement officers about 3 years ago to combat the false narratives coming out in social media and news outlets,” said spokesperson for the group Sutton. “Within a year we had 1.4 million followers. We now have a news and information website that gets about ten million hits a month.”
Its Facebook page states, “The name of Blue Lives Matter originated from the incident in Ferguson, Missouri; however, the initiative has been a long fought battle in the history of law enforcement.” It further outlines its goal “to honor and recognize the actions of law enforcement to strengthen the public support of an understandably naive society.”
Sutton said the group is diverse and inclusive—representing “black, white, Asian, Hispanic” members and bolstered by police support organizations like Under the Shield and the National Alliance for Law Enforcement Support. The law enforcement members of Blue Lives Matter must remain anonymous, however, as they do not have “free speech protections” from their departments, according to Sutton, “which is why I am their voice.”
“I am retired,” he said, and does not have the same restraints.
Police shootings of Black people in recent years have not only eroded the trust of officers in communities, but also have amplified long-standing questions about implicit bias and patterns of discriminatory policing in the United States. Some police officials have even admitted that reform has fallen short. Meanwhile, recent investigations have found that some departments, like Chicago’s, have historically been plagued by racism, excessive force, and a code of silence and loyalty among officers.
With that context, it’s no surprise some officers have gone on the defensive via the Blue Lives Matter group. But the way in which that reaction is being used to further criminalize communities of color is what concerns advocates.
President Donald Trump, who ran on a “law and order” platform, made out one of his first executive orders to extend protections to law enforcement. Trump’s continued false statements about the murder rate coupled with his U.S. attorney general appointee Jeff Session’s stance on sentencing—which have a disproportionate effect on communities of color—have at least in part fueled the rash of Blue Lives Matter acts this year.
Social justice advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union have come out against such Blue Lives Matter legislation as being overreach because law enforcement members are already a privileged protected group, as opposed to Black, Latino, Native, immigrant, or low-income communities that have historically been oppressed in this country.
Darron Spencer is a former Marine, corrections officer, and sheriff’s deputy who has written a book on humane policing. He told Rewire in an emailed statement that such bills don’t offer a solution to the complex problem of prejudice-motivated crimes.
“It is safe to say, that law enforcement encounters on both sides are becoming increasingly tragic. Humane policing does not support organizations that alienate groups of people or demands special treatment of any group regardless of category even if the alienation is simply implied. Simply put, all lives matter. As a nation, we need to stop labeling people and situations. Every individual and every encounter are unique to themselves only, and doing a comparison is quite frankly doing an injustice to the people and situation,” he said.
Michele Jawando, vice president of legal progress at the research and advocacy organization Center for American Progress, told Rewire in a phone interview that Black Lives Matter is focused on Black communities, in all their diversity, much like organizations that work with young women or Jewish people, and is not about exclusion.
Black people in the United States have historically been marginalized and subjugated by those leading the country. Policies rooted in discriminatory practices have left Black communities behind in areas ranging from education to health care. Black Lives Matter is “a part of that historical narrative,” Jawando said.
“Then you have the origins of Blue Lives Matter and people taking Black Lives Matter not as an affirmation of value, not as a movement focused on reducing fatalities … but as anti-police, and I think it completely misses the story, the context, the history, and the necessity of affirmations of value in the Black community,” she said.
A new report published by nonprofit policy group the Center for Popular Democracy found that state and local governments over the past three decades have spent more on criminalization, policing, and mass incarceration while slashing funds for basic infrastructure and investment in social safety net programs—none of which has made cities safer.
“Black Lives Matter isn’t about painting all police officers as inherently bad—it’s about creating a discourse that centers on the humanity and leadership of people of color in order to move toward systemic solutions that benefit everyone. It’s about pushing our police forces to examine their fundamental relationships to the communities they serve, and holding them accountable for actually building those relationships,” said Glenn Harris, president of the racial justice nonprofit Race Forward, in an email to Rewire.
Harris managed the Seattle-based Race and Social Justice Initiative for six years, where he established the city’s Office of the Community Police Commission.
Data collected by the Guardian indicates that police in the United States kill more people in days than law enforcement officers in other countries do in years—they also deal with more armed criminals than other countries do—and that young Black men are killed five times more than white men nationwide.
According to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 70 officers have died in the line of duty this year and 72 over the same time period in 2016. To compare, 568 people have been fatally shot by police so far in 2017 and a total of 963 in 2016, according to the Washington Post’s database. That number was at 508 people when we first began reporting this story three weeks ago.
“Blue Lives Matter exists because they are getting caught murdering folks and violating Fourth Amendment rights and are in desperate need of a propaganda campaign,” Kareem Henton, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Cleveland told Rewire. “Through assigning hero status to cops unconditionally they believe the hype and think all that they do is not to be questioned or deemed improper. This hero worship has also created the false notion that it’s unpatriotic to condemn police action, and no red-blooded American wants that label.”
Despite the threat the rhetoric pushed by Blue Lives Matter seems to pose on communities of color, the movement for police accountability is “strong and growing stronger every day,” as Mariadason put it. “Flimsy arguments from those who refuse to even engage with the idea that there is something wrong with policing in America cannot parallel the power of a grassroots movement with deep roots in communities in all 50 states,” he said.
Policing experts have suggested policy change at the top and rebuilding trust in communities of color. According to the Center for Popular Democracy’s report, police spending greatly outpaces spending in vital community resources and services, with the highest being 41 percent of general fund expenditures in Oakland. Of the cities surveyed, Baltimore has the highest per-capita police spending at $772 per resident.
“We need more investment in health care, housing and employment opportunities and less investment in unaccountable police departments and overcrowded jails,” said Marbre Stahly-Butts, co-director of Law for Black Lives, in a press release. “Black Lives matter is not just a slogan. It is a call to action to local, state and federal officials to change their budget priorities and listen to communities about what makes them safe and strong.”