by Brendan Kennedy
This past week, we saw numerous peaceful demonstrations across the country to speak out against police brutality following two high-profile killings. The protest in Dallas was marred by an act of hatred and terror when a man began to target and fire on police officers, killing five. It was a horrifying act to watch unfold, and healing from it will require unity and understanding. Unfortunately, the rhetoric from many opponents of Black Lives Matter has only deepened our divisions.
It seems that, fifty years later, our rhetoric around civil rights movements has not changed much.
Worse still is that these opponents have used the same political and rhetorical strategies as opponents of civil rights in the 1960s. Last week, I discussed a quote by Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, who said in 1965 that “police brutality (is) a terribly vicious canard which is used to conceal Negro criminality… to try to find someone else to blame for their crimes.” This week, on a CNN panel responding to the tragedy that occurred in Dallas, a former NYPD detective, Harry Houck, said he had statistics showing that black people commit more violent crimes than white people. “They turn it around- the racial demagogues out there- turn it around so that the blacks are being picked on.” It seems that, fifty years later, our rhetoric around civil rights movements has not changed much.
Today, opponents of Black Lives Matter argue that claims of police brutality and racial profiling are make believe (they aren’t), that any supporters of the movement support violence and murder (that’s ridiculous), that black people harbor violent crime in their communities and refuse to address it (that’s both untrue and pretty racist), and that there is a steep crime surge that is linked to the movement’s rise (there isn’t). These are the exact strategies, which Vesla Weaver called “frontlash”, that were used against civil rights in the 1960’s. Let’s break down this narrative and its effects piece by piece.
Police brutality was very much an issue in the movement of the 1960’s; many, such as Chief Parker in the quote above, dismissed the notion completely. Opponents of BLM do the very same-a variety of faulty or incomplete statistics have been thrown around in recent days to try and deny that police brutality or racial profiling exist. This attitude is dominant among the “All Lives Matter” crowd, who refuse to acknowledge the existence of these problems and, as a result, see the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as advocating a special, elevated status rather than simple equality. The phrase intentionally warps the message behind BLM in order to deflect and diminish their claims of oppression.
Opponents also disregard the movement’s message by putting the blame on victims, another old tactic. “If they conduct themselves in an orderly way,” Senator Robert Byrd said of Civil Rights protestors in the ‘60s, “they will not have to worry about police brutality.” This is an identical argument to those who take victims of police shooting and portray them as “no angel” or “a violent thug” by trying to point to past offenses, drug use, or resisting arrest. The effect of this is to reassure people who feel little remorse when police brutality occurs by asserting that the victims got what they had coming to them. It’s another way to discredit the movement and assure opponents that it is okay to not care about brutality.
Linking Civil Rights with Violence
The second element of the narrative is linking civil rights with crime by saying that even peaceful protests foster violent criminality. In another quote from the Civil Rights Era that I discussed last week, infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover argued that “the net effect of the charge of ‘police brutality’ is to provoke and encourage mob action and violence.” In the same vein, Chris Christie has said that BLM is “allowing lawlessness to reign in this country,” while Ted Cruz has accused the BLM movement of “literally suggesting and embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers.” And if the movement is inherently violent, the argument goes, then supporting it is also.
Laying the blame for riots and violence at the feet of politicians supporting civil rights is an increasingly popular tactic.
In response to riots of the ‘60s, Senator Richard Russell stated that “if our highest officials” support civil disobedience, “it can lead us into a state of anarchy.” Laying the blame for riots and violence at the feet of politicians supporting civil rights is an increasingly popular tactic. After Dallas, Roger Williams, the U.S. Representative for my hometown in Texas, blamed the attack on “constant instigation by prominent leaders, including our president.” Chris Christie has said that BLM was “calling for the murder of police officers… and the President of the United States is justifying that.” These arguments drew battle lines–either you are opposed to demonstrations against police brutality, or you are openly encouraging the murder of police officers, with no middle ground.
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Unfortunately, one of the most sinister and blatantly racist aspects of historical civil rights opposition remains: the notion of black criminality. Once again, we can see evidence of this in Police Chief Parker’s quote. His idea of “Negro criminality” became a basis for Nixonian crime policy. In the ‘60s, Senator Robert Byrd argued before President Johnson that “poverty neither provides a license for laziness nor for lawlessness,” before concluding “we can take the people out of the slums, but we cannot take the slums out of the people.” With that attitude, President Johnson’s desire to combat crime through poverty was toppled. Despite evidence that poverty and crime are linked, politicians began to devote themselves to research on cultural problems in the black community.
Rather than a symptom of social or economic illness, crime was seen as ingrained in black male culture.
Last week, I discussed Marvin Wolfgang’s “subculture of violence” theory, which stated that certain cultures, “especially comprised of males and Negroes”, accepted and celebrated violence and crime. Rather than a symptom of social or economic illness, crime was seen as ingrained in black male culture. Today, Bill O’Reilly has referenced this theory by name, blaming crime on “a violent subculture within the African-American community,” apparently unaware of the disastrous consequences the theory has had on race relations for decades.
One of the most common ways this theory is forwarded today is by referencing “black-on-black crime”. Opponents of BLM accuse protesters of hypocrisy by wondering why they do not demonstrate against urban crime amongst African-Americans, despite the fact that programs, demonstrations, and organizations for that cause are incredibly active. The notion being peddled is that black people do not care about violence and crime within their community, but that they accept and encourage it. This is the definition of Wolfgang’s theory, and every time a politician brings up black-on-black crime, they are accusing black people of harboring an inherently criminal culture.
In the Nixon era, this rhetoric was couched in talk of crime. Nixon, and other conservative politicians such as Goldwater before him, portrayed themselves as the only candidates to maintain law and order. Supporting civil rights meant encouraging crime; opposing and controlling it meant law and order. In the ‘60s, this narrative was based around an actual trend of increased crime; today, crime rates across several measures have steadily dropped since the ‘90s. Even though the game has changed, conservative politicians are using the same playbook: Donald Trump and his surrogates have said crime is “out of control” and labelled him as the “law and order candidate”.
The reaction to 1968 sowed the seeds of today’s chaos, and I fear we may be making the very same mistakes again.
I have seen many people comparing our current situation with the chaos of 1968. If that is the case, then we must be extremely careful with our response. Today, just as in the late ‘60s, opponents of civil rights are discrediting the movement, portraying it as inherently criminal, and peddling a notion of black criminality. Back then, the policies that resulted targeted and oppressed communities of color through harsh policing. The reaction to 1968 sowed the seeds of today’s chaos, and I fear we may be making the very same mistakes again.
Brendan Kennedy is a senior at Trinity University double majoring in Political Science and Spanish, from Dripping Springs, Texas.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.