We’re not long into summer, but already we’re long on tragedy. Police shootings of black men in Minnesota, Louisiana, and beyond. A mass shooting of police officers in Dallas.
Yet this surplus of tragedy seems to have created some confusion. So let’s clear things up.
There’s a difference between cops killing unarmed black people and the horrific murder of cops that just occurred in Dallas.
I don’t wish to diminish the losses in Dallas, or the loss suffered any time a cop is killed. That’s a tragedy beyond words. But it’s still different from the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many other black men and women who’ve lost their lives at the hands of the police.
The cops who killed Sterling and Castile were employed to protect the public. Sterling and Castile, in other words, paid the salaries of their own killers with their tax dollars. The murderer in Dallas, on the other hand, was no public servant.
Anyone who kills a cop faces severe penalties. The Dallas shooter, after all, is now dead. But cops who kill unarmed black men, most of the time, walk free. Indictments are uncommon, and convictions are rare.
Any time a cop is killed, the entire nation agrees that it was a crime and a tragedy. President Obama came back early from Europe to speak at a memorial service for the officers in Dallas, where former President George W. Bush also spoke. That’s not necessarily the case when cops kill black men.
Moreover, nobody is now looking into the records of the murdered officers to find out if they ever did anything wrong. Nobody wonders if perhaps it’s their own fault that they’re dead — because of course it isn’t.
It’s unspeakably wrong to blame victims of a heinous crime for their own deaths, or to diminish their value as human beings by digging for any imperfection to justify the act. But that’s what happens to black men killed by cops.
Police departments or unsympathetic journalists dig up old mug shots, petty rap sheets, or any suggestion the deceased might have used drugs or had a record, even if none of those alleged crimes would have been punishable by death. They blame victims for not following instructions, or diminish the problem by calling out “black-on-black violence.”
The only equivalence between the killing of cops and the killing of black men by cops is that both are tragedies. In both scenarios, beautiful human lives are snuffed out for no reason at all.
So why is it right to say “Black Lives Matter” but not “Blue Lives Matter”? Because our nation already believes that cops’ lives matter. But not everybody values black lives, and that’s the problem.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.” (OtherWords.org)