A Call to Arms
n September 20, a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina, shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man whom police said they had observed sitting in a parked car with a marijuana cigarette and a pistol. Members of Scott’s family immediately contradicted this description of events on social media, claiming he had no gun and had been holding only a book. In the flash of a muzzle, Charlotte became the stage for the next act in a wrenching national drama about race and law enforcement.
Charlotte is a vibrant, growing, integrated metropolis, the very image of the “new South.” The officer involved was black, as was the police chief. The chief had in fact come to his post expressing skepticism about police treatment of blacks and had instituted innovative community-relations programs and training to address the problem of “implicit bias.”
Nonetheless, within hours of the shooting, protestors bearing handmade signs saying “It was a book” filled the streets. Before long, the protests had devolved into riots. Police cars, city buses, and private vehicles were smashed, as were office buildings and the city’s convention center. Trucks were looted and burned. Ten young African-American men set upon a white man, robbing, beating, and stomping him—and landing him in the hospital. A 26-year-old black man was shot dead by someone else in the crowd. Although 16 police officers received injuries, only one rioter was arrested.
Charlotte’s demonstrators had taken to the streets spontaneously. But the national protest movement that has emerged on this issue over the past two years does have a group, or coalition of groups, at its core, and it is called Black Lives Matter.
The Black Lives Matter website and the Twitter hash tag #BlackLivesMatter had been launched in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tomeki—all in their thirties and all veteran activists. Cullors, a performance artist based in Los Angeles, founded Dignity and Power Now, which she says has “achieved . . . victories for the abolitionist movement.” The word “abolitionist” here refers to a vision of doing away entirely with the law-enforcement and criminal-justice systems. Garza is an officer of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, having previously run a San Francisco group called People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER). She, too, speaks of abolishing the criminal-justice system, albeit more tentatively than she speaks of abolishing the present economic system. Opal Tomeki, who describes herself as a “believer and practitioner of liberation theology,” is the New York–based executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
They were inspired to create Black Lives Matter out of anguish over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch volunteer, ethnically white and Hispanic, who had shot to death the black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. During its first year, the group drew little attention. Then came Ferguson.
In that Missouri city, on August 14, 2014, Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. The 18-year-old and 300-pound Brown, described as a “gentle giant,” carried no weapon at the time of his death. And according to individuals who said they had witnessed the shooting, he had either been gunned down while running from the officer or facing him with his hands raised, pleading, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
The next day, Ferguson was convulsed in rioting, and protests broke out in other cities. Black Lives Matter sponsored a series of “Freedom Rides” to Ferguson, and its Internet messages went viral. Suddenly it found itself at the center of what the New York Times called “the most formidable American protest movement of the 21st century.” On the ground in Ferguson, new leaders emerged, notably DeRay Mckesson, a former school administrator who became a peripatetic protestor in cities across the Midwest, the South, and his home town of Baltimore, and Johnetta Elzie, a 26-year-old Ferguson native.
President Obama embraced the group, inviting Mckesson, Elzie, and other Ferguson protestors to the White House on more than one occasion and appointing one, Brittany Packnett, to a task force on policing. He spoke in defense of the now ubiquitous slogan when others asked, Don’t all lives matter? And he went out of his way to defend the group at a memorial service two years later for five Dallas policemen murdered by a black sniper at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
Is it true, as Black Lives Matters asserts and as its very name suggests, that American society as a whole deems black lives to be devoid of value?
The entertainment and news media lavished attention on the new movement. Beyoncé, Rihanna, Pharrell Williams, and dozens of others made a video of support while actor Jesse Williams won the Black Entertainment Network’s Humanitarian Award for a separate video that he had made about Black Lives Matter. He stole the show at BET’s annual award ceremony with a speech decrying “this invention called whiteness [that] uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight,” an observation aired live to an audience of 7.2 million on BET, MTV, Comedy Central, and nine other U.S. networks and streamed online before being rebroadcast in the UK, France, and Africa.
The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Black Lives Matter while the Washington Post undertook a mammoth investigatory project to compile a complete data base on fatal police shootings, ferreting out twice as many as shown in FBI reports. In 2015, Time named Black Lives Matter a runner-up for its annual “Person of the Year.”
Where the journalists and entertainers go, philanthropists are likely to follow, and so it was in this case even as a variety of groups and advocates jostled for the Black Lives Matter banner. Google announced a half-million dollar grant to Cullors to monitor and combat police brutality. George Soros’s Open Society Institute gave $650,000 in 2015 to “groups at the core of the burgeoning #BlackLivesMatter movement.” And the Ford Foundation announced it was spearheading a consortium of donors pledging to raise $100 million over six years for the Movement for Black Lives, a self-described “united front” of the original Black Lives Matter together with some two dozen other kindred organizations.
In announcing its grant, Ford enthused: “The Movement for Black Lives has forged a new national conversation about the intractable legacy of racism, state violence, and state neglect of black communities in the United States.” But is that an accurate or complete description of the legacy of race relations with which we live? Is it true, as Black Lives Matter asserts and its very name suggests, that American society as a whole deems black lives to be devoid of value? Is it true, as it further asserts, that the deaths of blacks at the hands of police reflect racism and worse? And if these things are not true, then what is Black Lives Matter really after?
To explore this we must first look more closely at the story of Ferguson. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb labeled it “a case study of structural racism in America and a metaphor for all that had gone wrong since the end of the civil-rights movement.” Ferguson is a paradigm, to be sure, but not exactly for the things Cobb suggests it represents.
While a local grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, Obama’s Justice Department conducted its own painstaking investigation with an eye to bringing charges under federal civil-rights law. What it found, perhaps to its own surprise, was not merely ambiguity, which might have prompted the grand jurors to vote against an indictment. Rather, the evidence lent decisive support to Officer Wilson’s contention that he had acted in self-defense, and it showed that the widely circulated narrative about Brown and the actions that led to his death was a tissue of lies.
A video from a convenience-store surveillance camera captured the first act in this drama. It shows Brown reaching across the counter and brazenly helping himself to boxes of cigarillos without offering to pay, then walking to the exit. When the diminutive clerk tries to head him off, Brown shoves the man away, then menacingly turns on him until the man backs off.
The clerk called police, and the robbery was broadcast on police radio. Officer Wilson heard the call just as Brown and his accomplice, Dorian Johnson, were walking toward the officer’s SUV, which Wilson then maneuvered to block their path. The Justice Department report details what happened next:
Brown . . . reached into the SUV through the open driver’s window and punched and grabbed Wilson. This is corroborated by bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm . . . .Wilson [said] that he responded . . . by withdrawing his gun because he could not access less lethal weapons while seated inside the SUV.
At this point, the conflict intensified:
Brown then grabbed the weapon and struggled with Wilson to gain control of it. Wilson fired, striking Brown in the hand. Autopsy results and bullet trajectory, skin from Brown’s palm on the outside of the SUV door as well as Brown’s DNA on the inside of the driver’s door corroborate Wilson’s account.
The forensic evidence supported the officer’s account:
According to three autopsies, Brown sustained a close range gunshot wound to the fleshy portion of his right hand . . . . Soot from the muzzle of the gun found embedded in the tissue of this wound coupled with indicia of thermal change from the heat of the muzzle indicate that Brown’s hand was within inches of the muzzle of Wilson’s gun when it was fired. The location of the recovered bullet . . . also corroborates Wilson’s account of the struggle over the gun and when the gun was fired, as do witness accounts that Wilson fired at least one shot from inside the SUV.
Brown ran and Wilson began to pursue him, but Brown stopped after about a block and turned around, heading back toward Wilson. No one knows why, although the marijuana later found in his system may have influenced his judgment. Brown’s accomplice Johnson, meanwhile, had disappeared in a different direction. The report continues:
Several witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson as he moved toward Wilson . . . . While credible witnesses gave varying accounts of exactly what Brown was doing with his hands as he moved toward Wilson—i.e., balling them, holding them out, or pulling up his pants—and varying accounts of how he was moving—i.e., “charging,” moving in “slow motion,” or “running”—they all establish that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him. Although some witnesses state that Brown held his hands up at shoulder level with his palms facing outward for a brief moment, these same witnesses describe Brown then dropping his hands and “charging” at Wilson.
And what of the stories of Wilson’s shooting Brown as he fled or while his hands were raised in surrender?
The autopsy results confirm that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back as he was running away because there were no entrance wounds to Brown’s back . . . . [S]ome of those accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible or otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time. Certain other witnesses who originally stated Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported either to federal or local law enforcement or to the media.
The Justice Department reviewed physical evidence—crime scene, autopsy, DNA, dispatch recordings, ballistics, fingerprints, and audio recordings of the gunfire—and interviewed witnesses who saw or claimed to have seen the shooting. Eight of them confirmed Wilson’s testimony. The one white among them was disregarded as unreliable. But the other seven—five blacks and two identified as “bi-racial”—were deemed credible in that their versions were consistent internally and with the physical evidence.
These witnesses were almost all reluctant. According to the report, signs had been posted around the neighborhood that read “snitches get stitches.” Residents seemed to believe it. One of the seven “repeatedly refused to give formal statements to law enforcement for fear of reprisal should the . . . neighborhood find out that his account corroborated Wilson.” The report goes on: “Served with a county grand jury subpoena [he] refused to appear. . . . explain[ing] that he would rather go to jail than testify.” Another phoned in his account, but “prosecutors and investigators tried to no avail to interview” him. Another, when called before the grand jury, initially claimed memory loss. Another “was reluctant to identify herself and ultimately met with [detectives] in a library parking lot.” Yet another initially offered a version contrary to physical evidence; when confronted on this by FBI interrogators, she replied, “You’ve got to live the life to know it,” explaining that “she feared offering an account contrary to the narrative reported in the media that Brown had held his hands up in surrender.” In short, fear hung over the neighborhood.
The Justice Department interviewed 23 other witnesses who contradicted Wilson and inculpated him. But in the case of all 23—two whites and the rest black—investigators concluded that their stories were untrustworthy. Either their accounts changed upon retelling or were flatly contradicted by physical evidence or by well-established facts. Some may have been confused. Others were simply lying either to feel important or out of ulterior motives. Chief in the latter category was Dorian Johnson, Brown’s accomplice in the convenience-store robbery.
That Johnson was a practiced liar was already established by a prior conviction for “a crime of dishonesty” and illustrated charmingly when he told the New Yorker’s Jake Halpern that “before entering the [convenience store] he and Brown ‘never talked about stealing things’ [but] were instead immersed in a discussion ‘about the Bible and God.’” However, Johnson told Department of Justice investigators “that just prior to going to [the store], Brown engaged in a 25-minute conversation about marijuana” with a local contractor. (The stolen cigarillos were intended for use in smoking marijuana.)
It was Johnson who, according to the Justice Department report, “made multiple statements to the media immediately following the incident that spawned the popular narrative that Wilson shot Brown execution-style as he held up his hands in surrender,” a narrative that gave rise to the meme “hands up, don’t shoot.”
It is difficult to gauge how much of black Ferguson was represented by the witnesses who came forth with true accounts, and how much by those who circulated false narratives or rioted following the shooting and the grand jury’s non-indictment decision. This second round of mayhem was directly instigated by Brown’s stepfather, who can be seen on video addressing a rally, exhorting those gathered to “burn this bitch down.”
Clearly, however, a considerable part of the black community felt alienated from the police, and a second Justice Department report concluded that “Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias.” In sustaining its accusation of “racism,” the report instanced six racially pointed jokes found in the email of police or city officials. If such reprehensible items were common, they might add up to a culture of racism, but a total of six over six years of email exchanges among scores of individuals amounts to much less.
Among arrestees who were armed, 406 whites and 188 blacks were killed by police in 2015, a ratio closely reflecting the population of arrestees.
The report also noted that a large majority of the city’s officers are white while a majority of its citizenry is black, and that blacks “experience disparate impact in nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system,” notably that “African Americans account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population.”
n relying on “disparate impact” as a measure of discrimination, the Ferguson report provided a microcosm of an argument that goes to the heart of much national debate about race and criminal justice. President Obama deployed it in a 2015 speech: “In too many places in this country, black boys and black men, Latino boys, Latino men . . . experience being treated differently by law enforcement—in stops and in arrests, and in charges and incarcerations. The statistics are clear, up and down the criminal-justice system; there’s no dispute.” This sense of certainty comported oddly with the president’s own lament five months later at a White House forum on race and criminal justice that “we don’t really do a good job right now in collecting national data.” There is, moreover, much to dispute about how to interpret “the statistics,” as the president’s formulation, itself, unwittingly illustrated.
If black and Latino males are “treated differently,” we might ask, Differently from whom? Statistically, they are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than white males, but that disparity is dwarfed by another: the disparity with black and Latino females. There are more than 10 times as many males incarcerated as females. Could that difference be explained by factors other than discrimination against males?
Bearing in mind, then, that there might be reasons for disparities other than prejudice, let us consider the Washington Post’s database on the use of deadly force by police, since this is the issue around which Black Lives Matter and the larger national debate revolve.
Crime and Policing by the Numbers
The Post found that police killed 990 people in 2015. Of these, 494 were white, 258 black, 172 Hispanic, and 38 “other.” This means there were twice as many whites killed as blacks. On the other hand, since there are five or six times as many whites as blacks in America, clearly blacks were more likely to be killed, roughly three times as likely. But people killed by police are almost invariably in the process of being arrested or about to be arrested. This suggests that the relevant baseline against which to compare police killings is not the proportions of blacks and whites in the general population, but rather their presence in the population of arrestees.
The FBI compiles national data on arrests. For 2015, the ratio of white to black arrestees for all crimes was 70 percent to 27 percent, a ratio of about 2 1/2 to 1. If we use that as the baseline for comparison, then police kill blacks slightly more often than their numbers would warrant. However, the Washington Post lists Hispanics as a third category parallel to whites and blacks. Confusingly, the FBI, which assembles crime data, does not do so. In presenting racial statistics, it assigns Hispanics to either the white or black category while offering separate tables dividing populations between Hispanic and non-Hispanic without respect to color. When forced into the bivariate categories of black and white, Hispanics overwhelming categorize as white. (According to the census, 20 times more Hispanics self-identity as white than as black.) If those listed by the Post as Hispanic were instead assigned to one racial category or the other, it would bring the ratio of whites to blacks killed by police still into nearly perfect alignment with racial ratio of arrestees in FBI data.
The one area in which the Post reported finding a greater racial disparity was among unarmed individuals killed by police. In 2015, police killed 38 blacks and 32 whites. This ratio is out of line with the racial ratios of arrestees, but it is hard to know what to make of it. For one thing, the numbers are small and thus perhaps of little significance. For another, the Post’s “unarmed” category includes arrestees “holding an object unlikely to inflict serious injury, such as a stick or a broom handle.” In the moment, that broomstick might have felt more threatening to the officer than it appeared to the Post researcher who sorted the data. “Unarmed” does not always tell the whole story. Michael Brown was unarmed, but had he overpowered Officer Wilson, Brown might have seized Wilson’s gun. Several officers are killed each year with their own weapons. So even an unarmed arrestee can present a threat to an officer.
What makes this disparity particularly unlikely to reflect racial bias is the contrast with the numbers for arrestees who were armed. In this category, the Post found 406 whites and 188 blacks killed by police officers, a ratio closely reflecting the population of arrestees. If anti-black bias were at work, why would it cause police to kill unarmed black people but not armed ones?
Moreover, scholarly examinations of police behavior point to only modest racial disparities in the treatment of suspects, with no clear pattern. For example, a Rand Corporation study of New York’s stop-and-frisk program in 2006 found that “black pedestrians were stopped at a rate that is 20 to 30 percent lower than their representation in crime-suspect descriptions.” However, “Hispanic pedestrians were stopped disproportionately more, by 5 to 10 percent.” Whites were slightly less likely to be frisked or arrested after being stopped but slightly more likely to receive a summons. More recently, Roland Fryer Jr. a 39-year-old African-American economist at Harvard, completed studies of Houston police, showing that they were somewhat (16 to 25 percent) more likely to use force against black suspects (handcuff them, push them to the ground, and the like) but somewhat (22 percent) less likely to shoot them.
One other realm in which numbers have been tossed around in the search for racial bias is in the composition of police forces. The New York Times produced a database on “the race gap in America’s police departments.” Elaborate graphs were presented online showing the racial composition of “local police departments from 17 metropolitan areas, sorted so that departments with the largest percentage-point differences of white officers to white residents are at the top.” But according to Justice Department data, in the United States as a whole, the proportion of police who are black is 12 percent, exactly the black percentage in the population. While the Times compiled a list of cities in which blacks are “underrepresented” in police departments, the law of averages means there must be roughly as many where blacks are “overrepresented.”1
While it is surely beneficial to have ethnically diverse police departments, this has no bearing on the core issue of Black Lives Matter. Several studies have shown that black police officers are more likely to shoot, not less. The criminologist Heather Mac Donald cites the example of the Detroit Police Department, which was subject to federal oversight for 11 years, dating back to the George W. Bush administration, “for alleged abuse of civilians, including a pattern of unjustified shootings.” That department, she notes, is two-thirds black.
There is precious little evidence that racial bias determines the use of lethal force or other actions of police. This is not to say that all killings by police are justified. The South Carolina policeman who fired five rounds into the back of a fleeing Walter Scott is being tried for murder, rightly so, and this, alas, is surely not the only incident of its kind. But the large disparities between the races in all manner of unhappy encounters with the criminal-justice system are accounted for mainly by disparities in the rates of criminal behavior.
Although there are five to six times as many whites as blacks in America, more murders are committed by blacks than whites. Blacks, in fact, are about seven times more likely than whites to commit murder. The same seems to be true for robberies, based on the FBI’s national database of arrests. For other crimes, more whites than blacks are arrested. But controlling for population size, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for aggravated assault, and other assaults, and 2.5 times more likely for rape, burglary, or larceny and other property crimes.
Not only are blacks far more likely to run afoul of the law, their victims are mostly blacks. According to FBI statistics, blacks murdered nearly five times as many blacks as they murdered whites in 2015. Criminologist Peter Moskos prepared for his vocation by working for more than a year as a policeman in Baltimore’s roughest neighborhood. He offers this stunning datum: “Each year in Baltimore’s Eastern District approximately one in every 160 men aged 15 to 34 is murdered. At this rate, more than 10 percent of men in Baltimore’s Eastern District are murdered before the age of thirty-five.”
Ironically, despite the specter of black-on-white crime, a white person is as likely to be killed by a police officer as by a black civilian. A black person on the other hand is about ten times more likely to be killed by another black civilian than by an officer. Anyone taking to heart the sanctity of black lives might well endorse stricter courts and policing rather than the reverse.
Black Lives Matter is aware of its critics’ arguments and on its website responds thus: “The continued focus on black-on-black crime is a diversionary tactic . . . . To reduce violent crime we must fight to change systems rather than demonizing people.” Indeed, changing the system is the essential goal of Black Lives Matter; police violence is a wedge issue around which to rally support. “Neither our grievances nor our solutions are limited to the police killing of our people,” the group declares. “We seek not reform but transformation.”
BLM proclaims the goal of a “radical transformation of American democracy” and the “radical organization and self-determination of our communities.” Yet the term “radical” scarcely captures the full extreme of its views. “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention,” declares a founding statement, “in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” It goes on: “Black folks . . . face . . . deadly oppression” and “genocide.” In another statement the group explains: “We came together because we were tired of Black death at the hands of the state . . . . Death by a system designed to kill Black people.” Hence the slogan: “End the war on Black people.”
This past summer, the Movement released a full-blown platform. It called for “reparations for past and continuing harms . . . . inflicted on Black people.” These would take the form of “full and free access for all Black people (including undocumented and currently and formerly incarcerated people) to lifetime education,” “a guaranteed minimum livable income for all Black people,” “corporate and government reparations focused on healing ongoing physical and mental trauma, and ensuring our access and control of food sources, housing and land.”
Additional planks “demand” “independent Black political power and Black self-determination in all areas of society . . . remaking the current U.S. political system in order to create a real democracy where Black people and all marginalized people can effectively exercise full political power.” The document’s writers further demand “direct democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies” and “a restructuring of the economy to ensure Black communities have collective ownership.”
The group’s foreign-policy plank was no less extreme. It called for ending aid to Israel, which it described as an “apartheid state” engaged in “genocide . . . against the Palestinian people.” Some liberal Jewish groups expressed anguish, feeling compelled to draw a line against a black movement that they otherwise wished to embrace. But BLM’s view of Israel was of a piece with its view of the United States:
America is an empire that uses war to expand territory and power. American wars are unjust [and] destructive to Black communities globally . . . . The military industrial complex offers massive profits to private corporations from the death of our global diaspora . . . . The interlinked systems of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy shape the violence we face. As oppressed people living in the US, the belly of global empire, we are in a critical position to build the necessary connections for a global liberation movement. Until we are able to overturn US imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy, our brothers and sisters around the world will continue to live in chains.
It is hard to understand why liberal Jewish groups felt torn in rejecting a movement with views such as these. Radical Jewish groups, however, experienced no distress: They embraced it all. Jewish Voice for Peace endorsed the platform “in its entirety, without reservation.”
The radicalism of Black Lives Matter consists not only of extreme far-left rhetoric. The movement also exhibits an ambiguous attitude toward the use of violence. Its “freedom rides” to Ferguson often featured the implicitly threatening slogan, “no justice, no peace,” and its platform applauds “the bravery of those in Ferguson,” an apparent reference to rioters who vandalized property and burned businesses.
At a December 2014 New York protest called Millions March, which brought out large numbers of Black Lives Matter supporters, one contingent of marchers chanted, “What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want it? Now.” And another contingent assaulted and injured two isolated police officers on the Brooklyn Bridge who were trying, without using any weapon, to restrain a marcher from heaving a garbage can onto people below.
Days later, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a BLM sympathizer, ambushed and killed two policemen (one Hispanic, the other Asian) in Brooklyn after declaring his intention on Instagram to put some “pigs in a blanket.” Hours later on the streets of St. Louis, a small contingent of marchers taunted police by chanting, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.” The chant was reportedly led by Bassem Masri, a Palestinian American whom the New York Times identified as “perhaps Ferguson’s most famous live-streamer.” His face shrouded in a kaffiyeh, Masri also shouted that the police could not stand up to the “real men” of the “Palestinian resistance.” In August 2015, BLM marchers in St. Paul also broke into the “pigs in a blanket” chant.
Brinsley’s act, in declared retaliation for the death of Eric Garner after being put in a choke hold by a New York City officer trying to arrest him, was the first of a series of murders intended to retaliate for police killings of black civilians. In July 2016, five officers were killed and seven others wounded by a sniper in Dallas at a BLM protest, and in Baton Rouge days later, three officers were killed and three wounded in an ambush. In September in Phoenix, a black man ran over three police officers in an unprovoked vehicular attack, but all survived their injuries.
When the Dallas attack occurred, President Obama held a press conference in Poland, where he was attending a NATO meeting. He insisted: “Americans of all backgrounds are rightly outraged . . . . That includes protestors.” But in truth, Black Lives Matter expressed no outrage. Rather it merely dissociated itself from the murders and went on the offensive, declaring, “To assign the actions of one person to an entire movement is dangerous and irresponsible.” It did not so much as offer condolences to the fallen officers’ families. And the organizer of a BLM rally in Atlanta told CBS: “Black Lives Matter doesn’t condone shooting law enforcement. But I have to be honest: I understand why it was done.” He did not elaborate, but if the system is, as Black Lives Matter says, “designed to kill Black people” and is engaged in “genocide” against them, violence would be a reasonable response.
In the Footsteps of the Panthers
BLM applauds, and in some cases lionizes, an earlier generation of black militants whose entire métier was violence, in particular the murder of police officers.
The founding Black Lives Matter group treats Assata Shakur as something of patron saint. The group’s website features a quote from her, and Patrisse Cullors, one of its three co-leaders, recited the quote in a television interview, explaining:
This is how we close out every meeting, every event, every action. This is from our beloved Assata Shakur, who is on the FBI[’s] most wanted list, and she is a powerful leader who we are inspired by. Many of us have “Assata taught me” sweaters.
Indeed, according to the New York Times, “T-shirts and hoodies that read ‘ASSATA TAUGHT ME’ . . . .became part of [Black Lives Matter’s] protest iconography.”
The core of the ‘black liberation movement,’ which supplanted the civil-rights movement, was the Black Panther Party. BLM sees itself in its direct line of descent.
The Black Liberation Army, an outgrowth of the Black Panther Party, is accused by the Fraternal Order of Police of the murder of 13 police officers. The BLA did not dispute that it engaged in such activity. Rather, members described these actions as merely “soldiers fighting soldiers.”
Such braggadocio masked a still more vicious reality. Investigative journalist Bryan Burrough captured something of the group’s sick sadism in recounting for Politico the January 1972 murders of New York police officers Greg Foster (who was black) and Rocco Laurie, a crime for which the BLA took credit in a letter to news organizations:
A moment after the officers passed, the three [BLA “soldiers”] turned and drew pistols [and] began firing directly into their backs. Foster was hit eight times . . . Six bullets hit Rocco Laurie. . . . As the two men lay dying, their three assassins marched calmly toward them. A witness later claimed one of the shooters, hollered, “Shoot ’em in the balls,” and . . . all three again opened fire. Three bullets were fired directly into Greg Foster’s eyes; two more were shot into Rocco Laurie’s groin. When both men lay still, two of the assassins . . . ran toward a waiting Chrysler, while the third man, apparently intoxicated by the moment, reportedly danced a jig over the dead men’s bodies.
Shakur is not the only cop-killer whose cause is championed by the Movement for Black Lives. Its platform contains a call to “cease all current investigations and cold cases into former activists,” specifically listing “activists and freedom fighters . . . of the ’60s and ’70s.” The list included Imam Jamil Al Amin, Kamau Sadiki, and the San Francisco Eight. Al Amin, the former H. Rap Brown, had opened fire on two black police officers who were attempting to arrest him on a warrant. He killed one and wounded the other and was convicted of murder. Sadiki, the former Freddie Hilton, was a BLA member convicted of the ambush murder of Atlanta policeman James R. Greene. The San Francisco Eight were former BLA members charged in 2010 with the murder of a police sergeant who died at his desk in Ingleside, California, in 1971 when the station was bombed.
The Black Lives Matter website explains that the group is “working to (re)build the black liberation movement.” It does not mention the civil-rights movement, which vanquished Jim Crow by awakening the nation’s conscience and securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Having achieved its key goals, that movement was largely supplanted by the “black liberation movement,” which gave voice to black rage but accomplished little else.
The core of this later movement was the Black Panther Party, and Black Lives Matter sees itself in its direct line of descent. The parallel between Black Lives Matter and the Panthers was expressed by Ferguson organizer Johnetta Elzie, who, said the New York Times, “often wore dark lipstick, . . . oversize sunglasses and a leather jacket . . . channeling a Black Panther.” It was drawn explicitly by Stanley Nelson, the maker of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution, a two-hour Public Broadcasting documentary aired this year. This film, like the Movement for Black Lives, was financed by the Ford Foundation, on whose website Nelson explained: “Given the events in this country over the last year and a half or so, using the Panthers as an organizing tool seemed natural.” Thus, rather than give time on camera to any Panther detractors, Nelson produced what The Daily Beast’s cultural editor Michael Moynihan called a “hagiography.” In a statement issued to accompany the film, Nelson left little doubt that this was precisely his intent:
The Black Panther Party emerged out of a love for their people and a devotion to empowering them. This powerful display of the human spirit, rooted in heart, is what compelled me to communicate this story accurately . . . . Nearly half a century later, we find our voices in a renewed chorus for justice and equality. We continue to witness a state apparatus that perpetuates a culture of fear and aggression with frequent and unwarranted displays of racial violence and oppression.
The connection was also drawn by the New York Times, which gave over much of the front page of its Arts section to a breathless review of Power to the People, “an important new book” of photos of the Black Panthers by an ardent devotee, Stephen Shames, in collaboration with former party chairman, Bobby Seale. The book, intoned the Times, “has much to say about the current racial crisis.” The reviewer continued: “During the past half-century much has changed, yet little has changed, as the campaign to end systemic racism and violence against minorities, exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement, remains as vital as ever.”
Yet the truth about the Panthers could scarcely be uglier. Their signature slogan was “Off the pig,” meaning murder policemen, and murder they did. Party founder and guiding spirit Huey Newton was convicted of shooting to death an Oakland officer, a conviction that was overturned on the technicality that the judge had failed to inform the jury that it had the option of finding “involuntary manslaughter” if it believed Newton was impaired when firing. But Hugh Pearson, the black author of the most complete and dispassionate history of the Panthers, found two unrelated Newton associates who each said that Huey had confessed to them he had indeed murdered the officer.
Eldridge Cleaver, the party’s other most powerful leader, also gunned down a policeman, leading to a siege and protracted shootout in which one Panther was killed while trying either to surrender or escape. Typical of much racial discourse that persists to this day, a luminous list of literati at the New York Review of Books—Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Jessica Mitford, John Gunther, and scores more—rushed to declare that the Panthers “were victims of an attack by Oakland police.” But David Hilliard, the party’s chief of staff, acknowledged the true story in his memoirs: “Eldridge . . . gives me the plan . . . . We’ll transport a cache of guns from my house to West Oakland, catch a policeman on the way, and gun him down.”
The principal victims of Panther violence, however, may not have been police but black civilians. In Soul on Ice, the book that made him famous, Cleaver describes the act of raping white women as his personal “insurrection,” while explaining that he first raped a number of black women “for practice.” Newton, too, raped at least one black woman, a story recounted in the left-leaning New Times by liberal journalists who also detailed, as has Hugh Pearson, the toll of Panther violence. It ranged from Newton’s murder of a 17-year-old black prostitute and the pistol-whipping of a black tailor to a deadly feud between the Panthers and a rival armed group called US.
Panther apologists make much of the group’s health and education programs, but these were rackets. When an organization of legitimate black-owned businesses offered to provide food for the Panthers’ ballyhooed breakfast program, Newton insisted that it would take only cash.
Arguably, in fact, the victims of the Panthers’ most extreme violence were Panthers—those who dissented or were members of rival factions or were seen by Newton as competitors. Alex Rackley, to cite just one example, was accused of spying for the authorities. He was bludgeoned and scalded with boiling water over several days before being taken out and shot. Three Panthers confessed to the crime. Several others were gunned down in internecine struggles. Male party members were “disciplined” by terrible beatings and bullwhippings, females by being forced into prostitution.
The Real America
While Black Lives Matter is run by people who nonetheless seem to embrace the Panthers’ legacy, many of its adherents and sympathizers are motivated simply by revulsion over the various publicized cases in which police have killed blacks, and by the dismay at the situation that these events symbolize—enduring inequality between black and white in America. How to redress this inequality and to reduce the number of lethal acts by police are important questions. But their consideration is impeded rather than advanced by rhetoric about a “war on blacks” or the claim that endemic racism lies at the root of these problems.
In truth, this society has made enormous efforts to eliminate racial disparities and to compensate for the historical injustices done to blacks through slavery and discrimination. For some 40 years now, under the rubric “affirmative action,” blacks have received preference in admission to colleges and universities and in many jobs. In addition, federal, state, and local governments have spent immense sums toward the goal of assisting those in need. These programs affect more whites than blacks in absolute numbers, but relative to population, they affect more blacks, and this was often the intent. The entire “war on poverty” was initiated by the Johnson administration out of the momentum and spirit of the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s, that is, with the goal of closing the racial gap very much in mind. (Hilariously, Hugh Pearson reports that in 1967, “Newton, Seale, and Bobby Hutton took their paychecks from the antipoverty program and opened up the first Black Panther office.”)
A 2014 study by the House Budget Committee found that the federal government alone had spent 799 billion dollars on such programs, meaning the total with state and local funds must exceed one trillion a year. All of these efforts including affirmative action presumably have contributed to a measurable narrowing of the disparities. How to narrow them further is a matter that deserves far-reaching consideration, but this inquiry will not be advanced by demagoguery including the absurd notion that American society, or any substantial part of it, doubts that black lives matter.
1 The Times shifted between speaking of blacks and of “minorities.” It’s true that “minorities” as a whole are somewhat underrepresented, primarily because only 12 percent of police officers are Hispanic although Hispanics make up about 16 percent of the population. Does this disparity bespeak discrimination? A vastly larger percentage of Hispanics than of blacks or whites are immigrants, meaning that deficits in English fluency and educational background alone likely account for all or most of the shortfall of Hispanic police.