National Opinions

The GOP and Black Lives Matter

Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County in Wisconsin speaks during the opening night of the Republican National Convention.
Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County in Wisconsin speaks during the opening night of the Republican National Convention. Associated Press

The following editorial is to appear in The Baltimore Sun on July 20:

At the beginning of his speech Monday in Cleveland, Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. neatly encapsulated the fundamental misunderstanding about the Black Lives Matter movement, race and policing displayed during the “Make America Safe Again” first night of the Republican National Convention.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make something very clear: blue lives matter in America,” he shouted, to thunderous applause. “I stand before you tonight with a heavy heart as the law enforcement community prepares to bury three of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s finest. But there is some good news out of Baltimore, Maryland, as Lieutenant Brian Rice was acquitted on all charges in the malicious prosecution of activist State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.”

We would like to make something very clear: There is no connection, equivalency or relationship between the decision of a madman to open fire on innocent police officers doing their jobs and the decision of a prosecutor (and, incidentally, grand jury) to pursue criminal charges against police officers in connection to the death of a man in their custody. Judge Barry Williams’ decision in the case of Lieutenant Rice had nothing to do with whether we as a society support police. It was not a validation for police officers generally or even an absolution of the conduct of Rice and his fellow officers. It represented an evaluation of how the evidence presented at trial applied to the statutes of Maryland criminal law, nothing more, nothing less.

And that is all the Black Lives Matter movement is about: seeking to ensure due process and equal protection under the law regardless of race. Despite the implication of Sheriff Clarke’s remarks and those later in the evening by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Black Lives Matter is not anarchist. It is not anti-police or anti-white. It is simply a reaction to a long history and sad present in which laws have been enforced unequally with tragic consequences.

To hear Clarke tell it, there are those who follow the law and those who break it, but the reality in America is much different. The New York Times reported this weekend on the staggering number of times police had pulled over Philando Castile, the man fatally shot by an officer outside St. Paul, Minn., during a traffic stop. According to the Times, he was stopped 49 times in 13 years, often for things like failing to repair a broken seat belt, tinted windows, driving with an unlit license plate and – in the last, deadly encounter – a cracked taillight. Ask yourself: Have you ever driven with a burned out headlight, gone a bit over the speed limit, failed to come to a complete stop before turning right on red? What happened to you?

Don’t believe African-Americans have different experiences with police than whites? Ask South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, who spoke at length last week about the causes of the “trust gap” between blacks and police. “I can certainly remember the very first time I was pulled over by a police officer as just a youngster,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor. “The cop came up to my car, hand on his gun, and said, ‘Boy, don’t you know your headlight’s not working properly?' I felt embarrassed, ashamed and scared. Very scared.” Encounters like those have continued throughout his life even as he has achieved tremendous accomplishment. He said he had been stopped and questioned seven times in one year as an elected official, experiences he found frustrating and humiliating. “I do not know many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell no matter their profession,” he said. “No matter their income, no matter their disposition in life.”

Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer recently sought to quantify some of the disparate treatment, focusing specifically on use of force by police officers. A surprising finding of his study – that blacks are not more likely to be shot by police than whites – has overshadowed the revelation that blacks and Hispanics are 50 percent more likely to be subject to lower levels of force than whites. Variables like age, location in a high-crime area, level of cooperation with the officer and so on only account for part of that difference. All else being equal, police are 19.4 percent more likely to draw a weapon in an encounter with a black person than a white one, for example.

Perhaps it’s true, as Giuliani said Monday night, that when police “come to save your life, they don’t ask if you’re black or white, they just come to save you,” but there’s much more to the story than that. The issue isn’t an unwillingness to accept the rule of law, as Sheriff Clarke suggested. It’s a well grounded belief that this shared “code” is not applied with the “fairness and respect” he seems to take as a given. That’s what Donald Trump’s Republican Party doesn’t get about Black Lives Matter.


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