Free Speech Doesn’t Kill People

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Just hours after Deputy Darren Goforth was murdered in Houston allegedly by a black man there was an anti-police demonstration at the Minnesota State Fair by Black Lives Matter.

This ominous statement is how Bill O’Reilly began his August 30 “Unresolved Problems” segment. Sadly for our friend Bill he wasn’t getting much sympathy from his own panel for his concerns about Black Lives Matter. Both Juan Williams and Mary Katherine Ham quickly dismissed O’Reilly’s assertion that Black Lives Matter was a hate group. Williams, perhaps more schooled in geography than O’Reilly, pointed out that “They’re in Minnesota, the other people are in Houston” before explaining that the Minnesota protest was aimed at specific problems with the St. Paul Police Department. Ham warned O’Reilly “if we go down the road where political speech is inspiring these acts, whether on the right or the left, we get to the point where we cannot criticize the state in public…”

That O’Reilly could find no support from his pre-selected guests should not be taken as indicative as to how far out of the mainstream he is. Throughout the rest of the week, his Fox News cohorts used their echo chamber to promulgate their non-sensible meme that Black Lives Matter was somehow a hate group. One Fox New host decreed that it was “shut it down time” meaning that the government had to start shutting down Black Lives Matter protests and arresting its leaders, as people are “drunk on rights.”

These comments, while disturbing, could very easily be dismissed given Fox News’ general antipathy towards black lives, civil liberties, and reasoned discourse. Yet, to do so would be to ignore how the underlying logic in these comments, that political protests for racial justice somehow cause murder, has seeped into the mainstream.

Just days after the killing of both Goforth and another law enforcement officer, Charles Gliniewicz, USA Today published an op-ed by Ron Hasko, President of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, blaming Black Lives Matter for the deaths of both officers, as well as violent crime across the United States. Hasko asks his readers not once, but twice if there is “hard data and empirical evidence” to support his suppositions. Both times he concedes there is not.

Yet, Hasko will not let this admitted lack of evidence derail his attempt to smear a social movement for racial justice, as “concluding that both [the deaths of officers and the spike in crime] stem from the anti-cop themes from such protesters, liberal politicians and the mainstream media is hardly counterintuitive.” Hasko has picked up on a second reoccurring thread amongst the enemies of the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to being blamed for the deaths of police officers, Black Lives Matter is somehow responsible for crime in general. The New York Times reported that some “experts” were attributing an increase in murders to a “Ferguson Effect.”  This is the notion that national scrutiny of “aggressive” policing (presumably due to the protests in Ferguson and elsewhere) has emboldened criminals. Even on the ostensibly liberal MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked Trahern Crews, a Black Lives Matter organizer and Green Party candidate,

What do you say to people who are going to make the argument, already 
making the argument that cops are now tentative, because of activists like 
you and because they`re tentative, crime increasing and that blood is on 
your hands?

These comments are not limited to those in the media. NBC News notes a growing “backlash” against Black Lives Matter, citing the comments of police chiefs and Republican Presidential candidates (though the Republican Presidential candidates seem more interested in tying the police murders to President Obama than anything else).

There has been a multitude of responses to these attacks ranging from showing how media demagogues have distorted the Black Lives Matter movement to using empirical evidence to debunk the connection between Black Lives Matter and the so-called crime spike.  These efforts are important and activists should make these types of arguments. It is also important to place the demonization of the Black Lives Matter movement within the context of attempts to criminalize or repress dissent. Few have gone so far as to demand state governments “shut down” protests and arrest movement leaders, but generalized demands that the crime empowering antics of Black Lives Matter be “stopped” or vague proclamations of intent to put Black Lives Matter “out of business” don’t give off the most civil libertarian vibe. There is also something inherently antithetical to freedom of speech in the logic of these statements.

Police brutality has long been rampant and unchecked in communities of color. Fed up with this situation, people have taken to the street to demand police accountability. As with any vast movement the ideas about how to solve these problems range from the very tepid to the unabashedly radical. Per the enemies of the Black Lives Matter movement calling attention to police misconduct (and in many cases police criminality) and protesting against it has the effect of both hurting the feelings of the police, and making them less efficient at doing their jobs, and empowering unrelated criminals. Thus, protesting or even merely pointing out actual bad acts by the police inherently leads to violent crime. Ergo protesters have blood on their hands! What then is the logical conclusion? What then can oppressed communities do to fight back against their oppression without “bloodying” their hands? Nothing. They must remain silent, docile, and complacent. No matter how violent, brutal, or blatantly in the wrong the police are one must never expose or oppose these actions, as doing so will demoralize the police/embolden the “criminals.”

This worldview cannot be accepted. It will make impossible any police accountability ever. The Black Lives Matter movement has been successful at making the issue of police brutality part of the national discussion. It takes powerful social movements from below to force change from above. This is what the critics of Black Lives Matter know and this is the real reason they are angry. And this is why they embrace their fallacious and twisted smears against the Black Lives Matter movement. Their true interest is not in lowering crime rates or officer safety, it is shutting down a powerful social movement and repressing dissent. This is a deliberate assault not just on grassroots movements for racial justice and against police brutality, but an assault on freedom of speech and the right to dissent.  This insidious intent must be exposed and opposed, because unlike police brutality free speech doesn’t kill people.