Last night, Lillian and I were watching Avengers: Age of Ultron. She was firing off all these questions at the speed of light and I answered each of them. Then she asked me something which made me pause.
“Is he a bad guy because he has a gun?”
It will probably not surprise any of you that guns make me deeply, deeply uncomfortable. I grew up in a country where they are almost completely outlawed, and I fear them. My first instinct was to answer her with a “yes”, but I know that isn’t true. I personally know and love many civilians who carry firearms. They are not ‘bad guys’. I personally know and love many soldiers and police officers who carry firearms. They are not ‘bad guys’. At age almost-four, my daughter is too young to understand that sometimes the people with guns are bad guys, and sometimes they are good guys.
Because, you see, James Holmes had a gun when he killed twelve people in a movie theater in 2012. He was a bad guy.
Philando Castile had a gun on Wednesday when he was pulled over for a busted taillight in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He was a school cafeteria worker with no criminal record. He was not a bad guy.
So how do I explain to my child why James Holmes is alive and Philando Castile is dead?
I wasn’t going to write about this. My voice is not the important one here, so I was going to sit back and let others speak.
Then, Dallas happened. On Thursday, five police officers were killed during a demonstration related to the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. The Dallas police were there to keep the crowd safe. They posed for pictures with demonstrators, they filmed them and shared the videos on Twitter. Spreading the voice of their discontent. Helping. They were not bad guys.
I am seeing the people I love and admire following the same script from the same sick play that opened after the deaths of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray… The names change, but the dialogue doesn’t.
“Black lives matter.”
“Blue lives matter.”
We want things to be simple. We want clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys”, but life is far more nuanced than we would like it to be.
In our rush to oversimplify things, when we hear “black lives matter” we think that it means “only black lives matter” or “black lives matter more than others”. We turn “blue lives matter” into “only the lives of the police matter”. “Black lives matter, and police are the bad guys” versus “police lives matter, and everyone they come up against is a bad guy”.
I urge you all to remember that “black lives matter” doesn’t include the word ‘only’. Its meaning is not “black lives matter, and the police are the bad guys”. A closer, but wordier, explanation of its meaning would be: “this country has a long, tragic, and even recent history of treating people of color appallingly; and today we see people of color killed by law enforcement at a much higher rate than is proportional to their percentage of the population as a whole. When people of color are killed in high-profile incidents involving law enforcement, the media is quick to sully their name and their reputation by any means necessary, as if that justifies their deaths. So maybe, just maybe, America hasn’t healed from that history yet; maybe well-meaning cops are growing up hearing the racial attitudes of the not-too-distant past, and even if they are not intentionally racist, they’ve taken in those messages and absorbed them. So maybe, when the media rushes to dehumanize people of color, a fear and a prejudice grows in those well-meaning cops until they automatically see skin darker than their own as more of a threat, even if they don’t realize that they’re doing so. That might explain why last year, black men were nine times more likely to be killed by police than any other group, even though they only make up 2% of the general population.[Source] This has to stop. Black lives matter, too.”
But I also urge you to remember that “blue lives matter”, likewise, doesn’t include the word ‘only’. Maybe its meaning is closer to “the men and women who work in law enforcement make it their jobs to protect us. They put themselves in danger every single day, and many die in the line of duty: an average of 40-50 are shot, stabbed, strangled, or beaten every year.[Source] Demonizing law enforcement as a whole in the wake of high-profile incidents only heightens fear of the police and widens the gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve. To demonize law enforcement as a whole is an insult to the people who have sworn to serve and protect us, and do so every day without incident. Be outraged when innocent people are killed by the people who were supposed to keep them safe, yes; but please, remember that blue lives matter, too.”
And so we’re back to Lillian’s question, which, at its heart, is “how do we spot the bad guys?”.
We don’t. Because unlike in superhero movies, the bad guys don’t belong to one defined group, or organization; there isn’t one specific behavior that singles them out.
So please – please – stop pitting these two movements against each other. You can respect law enforcement in this country and grieve for officers who have fallen in the line of duty and still feel that people of color are dying at the hands of police at an alarming rate. “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean “only black lives matter”, any more than “blue lives matter” means “blue lives, and only blue lives, matter”. And while there is an ‘All Lives Matter’ movement, I would caution you that the movement and that language are not as inclusive as they sound. The battle cry of ‘all lives matter!’ is used more often to silence the grieving and the angry than it is to include them. To borrow from a popular internet analogy, it’s the equivalent of taking money from a fundraiser for a cancer charity while saying “what about the other diseases?”. It ignores people’s justified pain and outrage. It says “what about everyone else?” at a time when grieving communities are saying “yes, I know that all lives matter, but a life in my community was extinguished today and I am allowed to grieve for that loss; to focus on this particular life that was important to me”.
Two communities are hurting today. It is possible to show some compassion for both.