Black Lives Matter has done the nation a service by forcing Americans to reckon with a horrifying spate of police killings of unarmed African Americans. Without the movement, the names Eric Garner and Walter Scott wouldn’t resonate. Nor would Sandra Bland, who died in police custody and whose name was invoked during the most recent presidential debate. Despite this, Black Lives Matter has been severely taken to task, if not outright scorned, for its focus on police killings when, as its critics readily note, people in black neighborhoods are often at much more danger of being killed by other black people.
Why, they ask, hasn’t the Black Lives Matter movement been more concerned with — in wording sometimes fraught with condescension — “black-on-black crime?”
It’s a criticism typically associated with the political right, frequently thought (and frankly, frequently meant) to suggest that what black people need is to simply comport themselves differently, rather than endlessly complain about the depredations of (presumably) white police. However, even without such acrid, tribalistic intent, it’s possible to think BLM’s mission is currently incomplete.
Examples include black opinions voiced here, here and here: from me. I have consistently decried excessive stop-and-frisk policies and loudly supported the protests in Ferguson, Mo. — even as I recognize that the facts surrounding Michael Brown’s death were not what many initially supposed — and those in New York responding to Garner’s killing. Clearly, the tensions between cops and black Americans are keeping America from getting past race. I am regularly assailed from the right for these views.
And yet I maintain that Black Lives Matter should develop a second wing, devoted to rooting out the minority of criminals in black neighborhoods who kill with such abandon that in almost any big city in America, reading of such events over a weekend is so typical it barely makes news.
In response, some have asked a valid question: What do people like me suggest the movement does in this vein, given that there have been efforts to stanch — yes, I’ll use the phrase — black-on-black crime for decades? Even today, Stop the Violence marches are a regular feature in black communities. How much good, then, would it do for BLM to join the legions of people simply calling for an end to violence, to so little effect? None, probably — but the issue doesn’t stop there.
First, let’s realize that there have been protests against police brutality in black communities forever as well. BLM is making a difference because of the new possibilities that social media offer. And to their credit, in the short span of a year, they’ve moved from demonstrations to policy proposals: Campaign Zero, a movement offshoot, has put forth a comprehensive set of recommendations for potential remedies, and activists recently met with Democratic presidential candidates. I would only urge BLM organizers to expand these opportunities just as fiercely to addressing black-on-black crime. Yes, black communities are deeply concerned about black-on-black crime — but it would be hard to say there is any sea change in the general patterns lately. We seek real change.
Second, this could happen within a precious context that BLM has fostered: This is possibly a tipping-point moment in terms of addressing killings by police. BLM could, and should, channel some of its energy into squaring that circle. “Energy” may sound vague, but in terms of how social history happens, there’s an intangible point at which transformations occur because of a phase shift in general awareness that becomes impossible to ignore and generates further action.
Examples include the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s — recall that black activists had been demanding justice for centuries before then. Various currents — the Cold War, television and the unique charisma of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — aligned and allowed real advances to finally be made. Today’s movement must take advantage of the moment, and this could be one.
From that possibility flows a third point: BLM’s invaluable work could be the foundation for forging more trust between black communities and police. The absence of such trust, itself quite understandable, is central to the difficulty of ridding the — yes, I’ll say this, too — thugs from black neighborhoods. Imagine if BLM took advantage of the moment and applied its momentum and the power of social media to helping local police forces root out these criminals, and provided the resources to strengthen the ability of local community members to do the same. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, in his recent response to Glenn Loury and me, suggests that reforming police behavior would, itself, make black communities more cooperative. Others have correctly noted that structurally, the way many black communities are policed is different from the way other communities are policed — most Americans are accustomed to police showing up when there’s trouble, then leaving. Not so in many black neighborhoods, where police perpetually hover. I simply suggest a more targeted corrective.
Fourth, BLM could be central in calling for national assistance in fighting black-on-black crime, by accruing knowledge about the specific challenges in communities nationwide and helping forge demands appropriate to a particular location. Experience has shown that purely local efforts often end up merely shuffling the criminals from place to place, as happened in Kansas City: Community leader Joyce Riley led an effort to drive drug dealers from her neighborhood, which was heralded as a success, but later turned out to have largely dispersed the bad actors to other neighborhoods. Efforts such as the recent one in Baltimore, in which the FBI, the DEA and the Secret Service were brought in in August to apply their resources, should become a regular practice in America’s cities.
Without all of this, a noble new movement is devoting its resources to confronting one strain of violence at the expense of leaving unaddressed a different strain of violence that results in the deaths of far more black citizens. We are supposed to understand that it’s worse when the state kills people — that it is especially unpardonable that the official keepers of order are engaged in senseless killings. But this distinction sounds better as a political science point than it works in terms of on-the-ground concern for lived reality. What’s more, to the degree that both unchecked police brutality and the conditions in many communities — including joblessness, economic redlining and lack of access to municipal services other locales take for granted — that help create the conditions which foment black-on-black crime can be attributed to systemic racism, it’s not hard to make the case that any meaningful fight against systemic racism involves both approaches. After all, it’s also institutional racism that explains how easy it is for the acquaintance who kills another black person to go forever unapprehended, with barely any public outcry, while a young white woman’s disappearance makes news for years.
And at one level, this is all common sense. If a mother has a hard time coming to the conclusion that losing a child at the hands of criminals is a lesser tragedy than if she’d lost her child to cops, what is she missing?
If Black Lives Matter and its supporters’ response is that they indeed do think it’s just as catastrophic that she lost her child to violence within the community, then why not back up that sense of urgency with action? Direct the momentum of this new movement into acknowledging not that “All Lives Matter” — a clueless response to history in the making — but that Black Lives Matter, whoever takes them.