Black Lives Matter!

Black Lives Matter!

by Michael Earl Patton
Black Lives Matter: Cincinnati at Washington Park Photo: Camri Nelson

“All lives matter” is something in which I believe. I have been following the Black Lives Matter protests, and people’s reaction to them. I have been surprised to see some of this. I believe in the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right of the people to assemble and protest against grievances. I myself have no problem with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Some want them to say “All Live Matter” instead. I know what I mean by that, and have written about different aspects of it. I want to know what others mean by it.

Black Lives Matter flyer Photo: Dr. Mark Mussman
Black Lives Matter flyer Photo: Dr. Mark Mussman

Do they mean the homeless have the right to safe, affordable, and decent housing? Do they mean our treatment of the American Indians, using our military to push them out of their homelands and onto reservations? Do they mean those on Death Row? Do they mean those overseas who are targeted by our drones based on secret proceedings, and with no appeal? The recent execution of Micah Johnson by a drone robot, discussed further below, implies that drone killings may become more common here in the future – do those lives matter? What about the lives of refugees from the Mid-East and Libya, who are now flooding Europe due in part to our unsuccessful interventions in their home countries? Thousands have drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean. If their lives matter, why aren’t we doing more about the situation? What about the prisoners at Guantanamo? The U.S. Supreme Court says they have no rights protected under the Constitution because their prison is in Cuba and not in the U.S. Is that right? (For the record, I go with the Declaration of Independence here. It states that human rights were “endowed by their Creator” and are inherent within us, not privileges loaned to us by government.) Some would also include unborn babies, especially fetuses that reached viability. Does everyone who says “All Lives Matter” mean all of the above? By the way, I continue the list at the end of this editorial.

If I were married and my wife were to tell me, “Don’t forget the milk” as I went to the store, I wouldn’t take that to mean that the other groceries are less important. If I were going to the store because the milk happened to be the most important item, I wouldn’t forget it and I’m sure my wife would trust me on that. No, I would take a last-minute reminder not to forget the milk as having been due to my (ahem) forgetting the milk the last time or the last few times. I see the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as something similar. Here are some of the cases which I have been following where it appears to me, as a white person, that black lives are being placed in some kind of second-class category by authorities, if not “forgotten.”

July 13, 2013 George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African-American walking home and whom he had been trailing. He claimed that Trayvon had accosted him while he was trying to follow him. Before the jury deliberations began, the judge told them that George Zimmerman had the right under Florida law to “stand his ground” under Florida law and to use deadly force if he thought he was threatened. I could find no discussion as to whether Trayvon also had the right to “stand his ground” as an unarmed teenager. This is the first event where the hashtag “Black Lives Matter” was used.

John Crawford III had picked up a toy BB gun at the Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio, and was talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone when the police shot and killed him on August 5, 2014.

The store security camera shows that one policeman ran down a store aisle and shot him, without even checking to see if the information in the 911 call about a black man with a gun was correct. Before the police told his girlfriend that John was dead, they threatened her with jail for denying that he had entered the store with a gun. The grand jury declined to indict, and because the proceedings are sealed we do not know what the prosecutor told them nor what evidence they saw.

11-year old Tamir Rice was shot by police in Cleveland while playing in a park with a toy “Airsoft” gun on November 22, 2014. The security camera video shows that the police drove up and shot him without even assessing the situation. After shooting Tamir, the officers didn’t even try to save the kid by giving him first aid. They did, however, force his 14-year old sister to the ground, handcuff her, and place her in their squad car when she ran to her dying brother. Another officer, who arrived 4 minutes later, was the first to try to help Tamir. Again, the grand jury declined to indict, and because the proceedings are sealed we do not know what the prosecutor told them nor what evidence they saw.

The St. Louis county prosecutor waited until the night of November 24, 2014 before holding a press conference and announcing that the grand jury had declined to indict the police officer who had shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There is no video of the killing, but most unusually the prosecutor released a transcript of the proceedings. From the transcript we know that the grand jury was not selected at random and that the prosecutor did not give any recommendation as to how the jury should vote. Not giving a recommendation in a major case had been unheard of. The vote itself is sealed, so we do not know how the grand jury voted. Since a supermajority is needed for indictment, it is possible that most jurors voted to indict. Yet the press often says that the jury found Officer Darren Wilson innocent. The National Guard was called to the area before the announcement, and there were reports that they were told to stand down in the Ferguson area. Since the prosecutor had delayed his announcement till it was night (also unheard of until then), and government protection of private property had been withdrawn, this allowed some unknown individuals to set fire to businesses near where the shooting had taken place. See also my comments below regarding the events of mid-April 2013.

On April 25, 2014 the city of Flint, Michigan switched its water supply from Detroit, which it been using for decades, to the highly contaminated Flint River. The water out of the faucets became green or even black. It was so corrosive that the local GM engine block plant switched its own water supply back to Detroit’s. Residents were slowly becoming poisoned as the water ate away at lead pipes. Yet the city administration – imposed on it by the state due to financial difficulties – denied there was any problem, ignored complaints by the residents, and continued supplying the contaminated water for a year even after being notified by the GM plant. By the way, in spite of the financial crisis, the officials made certain that their own offices were supplied with bottled water. Flint is a majority African-American city according to the 2010 census. Just 37.4% of the residents identified themselves as white. 41.6% of the residents live below the poverty level.

All of this is on top of the vast racial disparity in incarceration rates between whites and blacks for drug offenses. As related in Michelle Alexander’s book published in 2010, The New Jim Crow, in some states black men have been locked up for drug crimes at 20 to 50 times the rate at which white men have been incarcerated. Yet study after study shows that people of all colors use and sell drugs at similar rates. So why the difference? Michelle Alexander argues that convicting black men on felony charges is a means of social control. Once convicted, however unequally and even based on perjured testimony, it is legal to discriminate against that person.

I often hear opponents of Black Lives Matter claim that the pattern of events is not unique to blacks, but they are unable to come up with a similar pattern for whites. Two of the victims mentioned above were completely innocent and are seen on video as being targeted, shot, and killed by police. Yet there were no prosecutions. In the case of Michael Brown, the night-time announcement of no indictment and the withdrawal of government protection against property in an African-American neighborhood created the perfect situation to encourage violence. In the case of Flint, does anyone really think that the long-term poisoning of a city’s own residents would have happened if the city had been majority white, and not majority black and poor?

The retaliatory shooting of police officers in the past few weeks – if that indeed is what these were – are inexcusable. Cop Lives Matter, too. But I also condemn the execution of one of the suspects, Micah Johnson, in Dallas early in the morning of July 8 after 14 police officers were shot and 5 killed. After pinning him down in a parking garage for several hours, and after he had lost lots of blood and been without sleep, the police sent in a robot with about a pound of C-4 explosive to kill him. I have not read that the police were in any immediate danger, or even that the suspect was in any condition to continue resistance for much longer. The police claim that they were watching out for their own lives, and the media widely supported their action. I do not. For one thing, this is only going to encourage suspects to take hostages. Blow up the suspect, and you blow up the hostage, too.

And by executing this suspect, the police prevented us from possibly learning from him of other people involved. Recall that the initial reports were of multiple shooters. Why were the police so certain that he was the only one? The police claim that he confessed to all of the killings, but why should we suddenly believe a murderer? Why are the police so certain he wasn’t covering something up? There is strong evidence that there is already a well-organized group within the United States that intends us great harm.

April 15, 2013 was the date of the Boston Marathon Bombing, which everyone has heard about. A few hours later, on April 16, gunmen attacked and destroyed the Metcalf electrical substation near San Jose, California. The attack was well-planned and apparently involved several individuals. The transformers were destroyed by shooting dozens of rounds of 7.62 x 39 mm bullets – the type that the AK-47 and other guns use. Fortunately, electrical usage was relatively low at the time or part of the electrical grid may have gone down. On April 17, 2013, the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, exploded due to a fire that had been deliberately set, i.e., sabotage. Fifteen people were killed and more than 160 were injured. The FBI identified the Tsarnaev brothers as having done the Boston bombing but there have been no suspects identified in the other attacks. There is even a $250,000 reward offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the Metcalf substation attack. More than the attacks themselves, here’s what concerns me — three attacks in the United States, back-to- back-to-back, about as widely separated in distance as possible. This looks like some kind of test, or maybe a demonstration of capabilities. Yes, maybe this is all a coincidence. And maybe pigs can fly, but they make most unlikely birds.

Back to Dallas. Executing suspects is not going to help uncover anything. We are all in this together and listening to one another, and I mean really listening, means that we must be open to possible criticism and be open to change. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one is forced to change, but one has to be open to the possibility that maybe one can improve. This especially goes for those with power, but it also applies to those with less, or none. Last year about this time I wrote a series of articles mostly supporting the president’s task force report on 21st Century Policing. President Obama has mentioned that report again recently, but it has been mostly ignored even after the recent events.

To conclude, let me also say that Gay and Straight Lives Matter; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Agnostic, and Atheist Lives Matter; Soldier, Sailor, Marine, and Airmen Lives Matter; Rich, Middle-class, and Poor Lives Matter; and I could continue but you get the idea. And Black Lives Matter.