For almost two years, a protest movement known as “Black Lives Matter” has convulsed the nation. Triggered by the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement holds that racist police officers are the greatest threat facing young black men today. This belief has triggered riots, “die-ins,” the murder and attempted murder of police officers, a campaign to eliminate traditional grand jury proceedings when police use lethal force, and a presidential task force on policing.
Even though the U.S. Justice Department has resoundingly disproven the lie that a pacific Michael Brown was shot in cold blood while trying to surrender, Brown is still venerated as a martyr. And now police officers are backing off of proactive policing in the face of the relentless venom directed at them on the street and in the media. As a result, violent crime is on the rise.
The need is urgent, therefore, to examine the Black Lives Matter movement’s central thesis—that police pose the greatest threat to young black men. I propose two counter hypotheses: first, that there is no government agency more dedicated to the idea that black lives matter than the police; and second, that we have been talking obsessively about alleged police racism over the last 20 years in order to avoid talking about a far larger problem—black-on-black crime.
Let’s be clear at the outset: police have an indefeasible obligation to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, and to act within the confines of the law. Too often, officers develop a hardened, obnoxious attitude. It is also true that being stopped when you are innocent of any wrongdoing is infuriating, humiliating, and sometimes terrifying. And needless to say, every unjustified police shooting of an unarmed civilian is a stomach-churning tragedy.
Given the history of racism in this country and the complicity of the police in that history, police shootings of black men are particularly and understandably fraught. That history informs how many people view the police. But however intolerable and inexcusable every act of police brutality is, and while we need to make sure that the police are properly trained in the Constitution and in courtesy, there is a larger reality behind the issue of policing, crime, and race that remains a taboo topic. The problem of black-on-black crime is an uncomfortable truth, but unless we acknowledge it, we won’t get very far in understanding patterns of policing.