Do All Black Lives Matter? More Of Your Dissents.

Readers respond to my column on the disproportionate focus on the small number of African-Americans killed by police.

The first round of dissents over my column last week, from more of a conservative bent, can be found in the full edition of the Dish. Below are criticisms from readers more from the left.

My first reader (the one we previewed earlier who assumed I was going to be just another “white pundit decrying ‘black on black’ crime”) seems to go too far in excusing the violence. When we talk in abstractions — that violence stems from “systemic racism,” as the reader puts it — we gloss over the fact that a human being decided to murder another human being. He didn’t have to. He has agency. Excusing the foulest murder of children by invoking some “system” treats African-Americans as somehow immune from personal responsibility and moral accountability. That is also dehumanizing.

Another dissenter from the left:

You write that, because Black communities disproportionately suffer violence, calls to abolish policing might do more harm than good. And you note that Black men and women largely agree.

Perhaps — but you’re failing, again, to reckon with the paradox of policing in Black communities. For too many, police are a force that fails to solve crimes that affect their lives in real ways, but lock up friends and family members for petty offenses that (generally speaking) don’t matter. Consider the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws against Black men, and the shockingly low clearance rate (think — solving rate) for homicides in cities like Chicago. Inveighing against “defund” or “abolish” rhetoric gets us nowhere closer to solving that paradox, and it generally feels like a lazy take on an immensely complicated problem. 

I see both my readers’ points. There is indeed a poignant, often localized, movement to expose and counter the levels of violence black Americans confront all the time. If white Americans were under such a siege, it would be a national scandal. I just wish it had a breakthrough moment the way “Defund The Police” did — and became the center of a national protest movement. I also understand how, in some areas, the police are counter-productive. But that’s not a reason to defund the cops, but to retrain and reform them.

Another dissenter says that Ilhan Omar didn’t simply call for “abolishing the police”:

She said disband and start over. It was a call for what they did in Camden, NJ, which is a very popular example that activists point to.

That restructuring in Camden actually increased the police force from 250 to 400, and subsequently both homicides and cases of excessive force decreased sharply. Obama hailed it as a success, but it didn’t appease Black Lives Matter. In this Politico piece on the restructuring, a BLM leader with a noose around his neck led a group of protestors demanding more racial equity in a police force that is majority non-white already.

This next reader points to another success story and suggests I’m exaggerating the situation:

I cringed when I first heard the “defund the police” slogan, because I knew what the result would be. Folks would use it to condemn an entire movement, and that’s exactly what’s happened. So let’s see: one city voted to actually defund the police, two congresswomen repeated the slogan and omg we are going to hell in a handbasket!

It just makes me laugh, especially when a city like San Francisco just formed a “squad” of unarmed professionals to respond to calls of mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse, parking violations, and other nonviolent issues. The police union president, in fact, supports the changes because it will allow cops to concentrate on more violent crimes ... which is exactly what I understood the sentiment behind “defund the police” to really be. But “defund the police” is a lot catchier than “move some money to add folks who will respond to nonviolent calls that don’t require a cop.”

“Reform the police” isn’t catchy enough? Matt Yglesias slams “defund the police” as both a slogan and a policy, noting, “A whole bill full of police reforms passed the US House of Representatives and received only a tiny fraction of the attention that was paid to defunding.” He adds:

Thanks in part to the hard work of defund police activists, no Republicans who opposed that measure faced any heat over it. Instead, heat was applied to mayors and city council members in progressive cities, and the aim of the heat was to get them to enact cuts in police funding. In some cities [more than a dozen] this policy was adopted and in others it wasn’t. But in terms of what activists can achieve, it went pretty well. They dominated the conversation.

The erasing of endemic violence against black Americans in the media continues. You probably heard about the tragic death of Daniel Prude, the black man in Rochester, New York who died after police detained him during a mental health episode fueled by PCP. But did you hear about the following story relayed by a reader?

In September, two black college students in Rochester were killed during a shooting at a late-night house party that injured 14 others. Both of the dead teens were simply bystanders. From the Wiki page:

House parties had been a cause of violence in Rochester in the months prior to the shooting, as well as being an issue for COVID-19 containment. After 70 people were shot in a six-week span between June 1 to July 15, Mayor Warren [a black woman with a black police chief] issued an emergency order banning [such] public gatherings … Her order was protested by residents, including Free the People Roc and the Coalition for Black Lives, the groups saying “the city has shown a complete disregard for black lives as they continue to criminalize black and brown for simply existing in their neighborhoods.”

I was curious to see how long the Rochester newspaper would follow the crime; mention of it seemed to disappear after two days. The only effort I’m aware of that recognizes the victims of such violence is the Philadelphia Obituary Project. It doesn’t receive great support. I wonder what might happen if the newspapers in our major cities published a rolling list of homicide victims on their front page every day. I suppose that in several cities that list would fill the page by mid-year.

The media also tends to focus on BLM at the expense of other viewpoints among African-Americans. A reader points to the following clip of Pastor Jasper Williams, who bluntly states views about BLM that would make many white Republicans blanch:

The pastor got a ton of backlash, of course.

Another reader points the finger at poverty:

The root issue of urban violence is that the criminal and the victim are very likely poor, and living in dense areas of poverty that make crime among the poor more likely, particularly when the situation persists over generations to the point where it is experienced as an unchanging condition of life. The poor are more likely to be perpetrators and victims of crime, regardless of race. Blacks are overwhelmingly overrepresented in such groups, so they are overrepresented in violent crime. Unless the crime figures are adjusted to factor in the issue of endemic poverty, it is meaningless to compare intra-racial crime rates among black and white populations. The wealth/property disparity is simply far too great.

On that note, another reader says it’s a “strawman” for me to cite the recent spikes in carjackings in cities like Louisville and Minneapolis:

It’s obviously a massive assumption to say that the carjackings are caused by BLM and their anti-police rhetoric. I mean, we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is causing huge upheaval in people’s lives, including increased financial pressure … don’t you think there’s a chance that might have something to do with it?

Another reader speaks to the issue of urban violence from personal experience:

When I saw the subject line on the latest Dish email I did a preemptive face-palm. I dreaded watching you trot out the tired, cliche, and false conservative argument that (Black) people only care about Black people killed by police and not by other African Americans in their communities (“black-on-black crime,” in other words). This argument gets trotted out on Fox News and Rush and other conservative media ad nauseam. Here is a recent example.

This ignores the deep concern residents of these communities do have about community violence. When I lived in DC, I worked for four years at an elementary school east of the Anacostia River, i.e. an overwhelming Black neighborhood. Community violence was definitely a problem and I can remember two occasions when kids were hustled back into the building from recess when gunshots could be heard in the immediate vicinity. One particularly horrible shooting happened half a mile from the school the summer before I moved.

I found that the parents and grandparents of the students were very concerned about violence and could cite offhand the local police precinct’s homicide clearance rate. Local churches advocated and pleaded with the police to curb this violence. It is not the case that Black people care about police violence at the expense of community violence. They care deeply about both.

It is true that when an unarmed Black person is killed by police it is, since Michael Brown, national news. Rightly so, and there is an ever longer list of names we know. But community violence is still local news and residents of those communities care about it, even if it’s not in the New York Times.

Reading your essay, I was glad you avoided the worst tropes of the genre. You acknowledge that police killings of Black people are a terrible problem that people are rightly concerned about, and that Black people care very much about community violence even if it is not national news. So why do you frame the piece as if only some Black lives matter? And why do you drive yourself into paroxysms of anxiety about voices on the woke left when you recognize that they and their views are a small minority nationally and among African Americans?

Glenn Loury would agree with that reader about these stories “not being in the New York Times” and other national op-ed pages. This week Glenn went on a righteous rant:

This next reader has taken action:

As someone involved in the defunding movement, I’ll say that what we are looking for is an alternative to police being the only thing that ever is considered as a response to violence. So in St. Louis, where I live, we call it “reimagining public safety” and bringing the Cure Violence program here is a big part of that. This is proving to be a super slow process, but I very much encourage you to watch the informational videos on the group, which started in Chicago. It’s also featured in the documentary “The Interrupters.” (I also recommend Matt Taibbi’s underrated book, I Can’t Breathe, about the Eric Garner killing.) Maybe you are already familiar with this group, as the caption of the photograph refers to a violence interrupter. Regardless, if you care about it, maybe more publicity for their approach would be good?

Agreed. One more reader:

Katie Herzog responded to a dissent last week by concluding, “These people [HRC et al.] may be trying to help, but spreading these myths gives trans people the false impression that they are going to be murdered every time they leave the house.”

Likewise, the ceaseless drumbeat that police are fundamentally motivated by racism does not help Black communities. We are teaching people that because the police are out to get them, desperate behaviors are necessary (e.g. fleeing) — behaviors that will only escalate encounters and increase the chances they end in tragedy. And encouraging an antagonistic attitude towards the police makes crimes in these communities much more difficult to solve (and thus deter).

Yes, of course we need to stop excusing actual police misconduct, and the police should not be blindly supported in all things. Yes, of course we need to put clearly defined limitations on the use of force and consistently enforce them. These are all good conversations to have. But saying things like, “The policeman who pulls you over for an expired vehicle registration probably hates you for the color of your skin and is looking for any excuse to attack,” a.k.a. “the Talk”?  That doesn’t help anyone.