Black and Blue
Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. It is emblematic of the state of our nation that those two ideas seem to be in opposition. If you believe that black lives matter, that police should be accountable, somehow that means that you are anti-cop or even condone violence against police. If you think blue lives matter, that the killing of police is unjustifiable, then that somehow means that you condone violence and the killing of people of color. These ideas should be compatible and mutually reinforcing but so far are not.
The path to this deplorable situation winds directly from slavery to today and it did not happen by chance. In 1860 a group of elite Southerners led by William Lowndes Yancey, Edmund Ruffin and Robert Barnwell Rhett know as the Fire-Eaters met in South Carolina to forever change the course of the nation. As is so often the case it was about money and power. Humans held in bondage constituted the largest source of wealth in the South and the men at the gathering wanted more: more money, more power and more slaves and slave markets. This meant that the new lands in the West must be slave territories and slave states. Slave states were essential to increasing the number of pro-slavery Senators and dominating the electoral college in presidential elections.
Their plans were big. They wanted to conquer and annex Cuba, some or all of what remained of Mexico and parts of Central America as slave holding states. The time for compromise was over, it was time to force the issue. They would either have slavery enshrined nationally or they would destroy the Union.
The Democratic convention in April,1860 in Charleston SC deadlocked, adjourning after 50 votes without a nominee. The block of delegates that Yancey and company controlled denied Stephen Douglas the nomination. Subsequently the party split, with different factions running different candidates, thus assuring that the Republican nominee would likely prevail. This was prior to Lincoln being nominated, let alone elected (remember that Lincoln was a dark horse and the Republican nominee was expected to be William Seward). For the Fire-Eaters a Republican victory would be the vehicle to force succession, and it was. South Carolina seceded prior to Lincoln being inaugurated. And it is worth noting that since Lincoln won with less than 40% of the popular vote he did not have much of a mandate.
The South lost the Civil War but won the peace that followed, successfully running a campaign to undermine and end Reconstruction and then systematically reinstating the antebellum social order, slavery by another name as one book termed it. A campaign of terror and intimidation drove African Americans from their land, voting booths and public life, turning most into sharecroppers or worse, and ushering in an apartheid order. The de facto subjugation of Blacks was gradually formalized through Jim Crow laws that not only excluded Blacks from political and civic participation but denied them education and institutionalized a system of forced labor.
The center piece of this system was lynching. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented over 4000 lynchings in 12 southern states from 1877 to 1950. We tend to think of lynchings as actions taken by liquored up men in sheets in the dead of night. In fact large numbers of lynchings were public events held in village squares or on courthouse steps and attended by hundreds or thousands of good citizens as family spectacles. Police often participated or stood idly by.
The people who maintained this system of racial hierarchy were and are very resilient. Like a whack-a-mole game, when one obstacle to racial equality is knocked down they erect another often more subtle, but still effective, alternative. So by the 1930's when lynchings increasingly attracted public notice and condemnation in the North, Southern states instituted a system of capital punishment using white prosecutors, judges and juries to quickly dispatch, often in a single day, death sentences and executions of Blacks on the flimsiest of evidence or pretext. When schools were ordered integrated public school funding was cut or eliminated across the South and white private schools flourished, often illegally funded with public money. More recently we have seen how the Voting Rights Act has been undermined and voting access limited through measures such as reduced polling places in minority majority areas, voter ID laws, purging of rolls, reduced early voting opportunities and the like.
A critical role in this system was played by police which is pertinent to the situation today. The police have always been agents of the rich and powerful, the elite. Police attacked striking miners, textile workers and other union workers through out the labor movement. They enforced segregation and discouraged outsiders. As Bill Morrissey wrote "The law is not meant to protect the man from out of town," as the Freedom Riders found out. Police enforced slavery, hunted runaways, participated in lynching, rounded up candidates for the judicial forced labor system, attempted to crush the civil rights movement and are key players in the system that now results in one third of black males going to prison.
I think a number of factors are important in the current tension between minority communities and the police. First, the history of the two groups matters. For many of us the image of Sheriff Bull Connor unleashing attack dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators is emblematic of the Civil Rights era. For Blacks that era never ended.
Second, the militarization of the police with SWAT teams, riot gear, and armored vehicles fosters a violent, aggressive response to perceived threats. These things also isolate police officers from the people they are supposed to be serving and protecting.
Third, African Americans are less willing to be passive and accepting of their "place" at the bottom wrung of society.
This all leads to an environment where the police are scared. They are afraid of the people in their communities because they don't know them; they hide behind armor, in cars and with the use of military pacification tactics. It is therefore not surprising that there have been shootings of police officers. While such acts can never be justified, what is surprising is that it has not happened sooner, that is has not happened more.
History can be a lesson or it can be a precursor of the future. Do we learn or do we "stand on old familiar ground?" Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. But they will only really matter when they find a way to matter to each other.
One Small Voice
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