In the current climate, where people liken Black Lives Matter to the KKK, the truth becomes difficult to parse. The glamor of hyperbole and exaggeration takes the place of nuanced discussion and complexity. One of the most prevalent indications of this flight from complexity is the idea that you must pick one ideological side and remain loyal to it. You’re either Blue Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter, and never the twain shall meet.
Without going too deep into the possible reasons for this lack of overlap between the two slogans (not to mention the implications of counteracting a movement that fights for civil rights with an endorsement of the stewards of government-sanctioned violence), I’d like to propose a startling argument: you can indeed deplore police aggression AND appreciate the role of the police in society. You can admire and acknowledge the challenges and the sacrifices of policemen and women while also recognizing the fraught role that law enforcement has played in the lives of African Americans. You can stand with Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter (even though the Blue Lives Matter slogan doesn’t quite make sense in the first place). Here’s why.
The important thing to remember is that policemen defend laws, not people. They are agents of the law, not of justice. Many White people like to remind victims of police brutality of this fact in various iterations and wordings: “He didn’t do what the officer asked,” “He wasn’t obeying the law,” “He put himself in harm’s way,” etc. But the truth is, the law exists for White people as well, and it does not care who is pro-police and who is anti-police when push comes to shove, especially when the people wielding or writing the law have ulterior motives. The law and its representatives have no allegiance to private citizens, although it may favor some based on skin color.
So it doesn’t make sense to root for police officers as if they were individual crusaders and defenders of righteousness and virtue. When someone puts a uniform on, they no longer represent themselves, but the institution they stand for. While one can rightly admire Mr. Joe for his career in law enforcement, when Mr. Joe becomes Officer Joe, he becomes a public representative of order (and frequently of state sanctioned violence). He does not represent himself as an individual. When in uniform, he forfeits his safety and his personal identity in service of the public and in service of the laws of society. That is the great sacrifice of being a policeman, or of any civil servant (politicians, for example, should ideally forfeit their personal agendas in service of the people and the nation they represent).
Thus, because Officer Joe is a representative of the State, to defend him means to defend the State. And since the State is not a person, then the State doesn’t have a ‘’life’’, per se. Ergo, Blue Lives Matter makes no sense. To defend Blue Lives Matter is to ascribe humanity to an institution and to defend an institution that will not defend you unless you are on the right side of the law (or on the right side of who wrote the law). Obviously things get messy because although the police are representatives of the state, they are also human, so they are vulnerable to biases and prejudices. Many White police officers have a gut reaction that causes them to view Black people as threats, so they shoot on sight and then claim they feared for their life.
We would do well to remember that the police are not our friends, even if the person under the uniform might be a friend during off hours. The police are not acting as our family members, even if the man behind the badge is your uncle. When the system works, the police exist to restrain and apprehend the most heinous elements of society: murderers, rapists, abusers, the corrupt and the cruel. We should remember the humanity of the police force when they defend the well-being of a community, protect the vulnerable, preserve the sanctity of human rights, and combat crime. We should not remember the humanity of police officers when they act on subconscious racial biases to kill innocent American citizens.
Image: Community members gather for a Black Lives Matter demonstration outside the offices of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Police Department’s union on December 3, 2015.
Photo: Tony Webster, firstname.lastname@example.org