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If All Lives Matter, Act Like It

By Paris, Vice Op-Ed

I've looked down the barrel of a cop's gun on three separate occasions, none of which involved crime. The most recent was in my own home, when I neglected to punch my alarm code in quickly enough upon entry. Was it completely necessary for the police officer to pin his knee in my back, gun drawn, as he went about determining my right to be there? Of course not. Was it racially motivated? Given the history of law enforcement in America, I find it hard to believe otherwise.

He and his partner went on to joke about how I could probably "use a drink" once everything was cleared up.

Black people have been talking about police brutality practically since America started—origins of police in this country can be traced to slave patrols in the 1700s. In recent decades, we've protested about it, marched about it, organized in our communities about it, written about it, sung about it, and developed art and comedy routines to soften its psychological blow. And still, we die.

The onslaught of social media has allowed for the chronicling of instances of blatant sadistic violence in a way that makes clearer than ever the viciousness by which cops often interact with us. "Hands up, don't shoot"—a slogan championed by the #BlackLivesMatter movement—has been the rallying cry around police brutality for the last two years in America.

And we still die.

So when police officers were killed and wounded in Baton Rogue this past weekend and in Dallas earlier this month, I think it's fair to say the carnage was experienced differently by those of us familiar with police savagery. Indeed, conciliatory calls in the media for the nation to "heal" and to "stop the violence" reek of racial condescension; from where I'm sitting, calls for restraint only seems to gain cultural currency when police are in the crosshairs.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we've seen killing after killing after killing after killing after killing of people of color by cops. This summer, the region has seen dozens of officers wrapped up in what arguably amounts to a massive child-rape scandal—one that caused Oakland PD to go through three different police chiefs in 8 days. We've also been casual observers of separate racist text message scandals involving officers in both the Oakland and San Fran police departments.

In fact, San Francisco's Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement recently examined the SFPD and delivered an exhaustive report on its practices. Authors found the department and its affiliated Police Officer's Association "functioned like a 'good old boys' club,' making it difficult to impose discipline," with a "'code of silence''—informal pressure for officers to "fall in line" and not report observed misconduct—makes it difficult to identify and respond to bias within the department."

All of which helps explain why it's hard for some of us to sympathize when violence goes down in the opposite direction. The media treats police officers like no others, often generating support for those who get caught beating and killing us by portraying the victims as thugs and the perpetrators as heroes. But we're not all thugs, and all cops aren't heroes. The blanket assignment of the latter term insults those officers who actually are heroic by placing them alongside cops who shoot unarmed kids.

See, being black around police is tricky in America. We don't feel the same sense of calm and inclusion around officers that many whites do. A lot of us will never call the police to help us, not because of some "don't snitch" code of ethics, but because we don't trust them to be in our business and don't want to be on the system's radar. When the lights flash behind us, we feel apprehension—even if we've done nothing wrong—and all because many of us can either recall firsthand negative experiences with cops, or know (knew?) someone who's had them.

Mario Woods didn't make it. After the man's disturbing videotaped killing at the hands of the SFPD went viral, it caused community outrage, a hunger strike, and was part of the impetus for the eventual resignation of the city's police chief. The man's autopsy revealed that he had suffered 20 gunshot wounds, including 6 in the back.

Some of us who don't trust cops adhere to the tenets of self-defense espoused by Malcolm X. That's why calls for gun control fall on deaf ears for some black folks. Why would we want to be unarmed in an environment where those who are trusted to "serve and protect us" may wantonly do the exact opposite? Especially when they are almost never charged with a crime, let alone found guilty?

Of course, we hear things like, "Why aren't you guys speaking out about black on black crime?" and "What about Chicago?" as though you can't be concerned with more than one issue at a time. We are. And every community has problems—we just don't need the police adding to ours.

No one life is more important than that of another. When we say "Black Lives Matter," it's because it needs to be said aloud in a country that repeatedly sends the message that they don't. Cynical retorts of "All Lives Matter" serve to undermine this basic fact.

When I read that the governor of Texas recently ordered his mansion to be lit blue in solidarity with fallen officers in that state, I wondered if governors around the nation might light their mansions brown in honor of the thousands of people of color killed by police. Maybe Jet Blue will offer free airfare for those wishing to attend funerals of black and brown victims of law enforcement wrongdoing, as they've done for police lost in the line of duty. And maybe traffic will be interrupted and the media will preempt programming to cover funerals of dead black men and women like they routinely do for fallen officers in cities across America.

The demonization of black victims and the lionization of law enforcement have to end for the rest of America to feel what we feel, and for conditions to change accordingly. Almost no one wants violence, on either side—nor should they. But as long as black lives are continually shown not to matter, some of us will continue to experience the tragedy of fallen officers with a bit less alacrity than our white friends.

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