Don't exploit #BlackLivesMatter for political gain

Lanitra Dean, center, and others who once were in the Prairie View A&M marching band with Sandra Bland sing at a vigil in her memory. Photo by Callie Richmond

When the world watched as Ferguson, Cleveland and Baltimore burned last year, a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. kept cropping up alongside images of police clad in riot gear and protestors exercising their First Amendment rights: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

The phrase was presented as a counter narrative to an epidemic of lazy reporting that conflated acts of fervent civil unrest with criminal mischief and property destruction.

And it worked. People on both sides of the protests took note of who was demonstrating, why and how.

But some have been working ever since to position the outcry — and more specifically, the #BlackLivesMatter movement — as a threat to public safety.

As I listen to statements from Texas’ elected and appointed officials, I get the impression that the demands of activists who keep Sandra Bland’s name in the news, classmates who question why Christian Taylor was killed over his erratic behavior and thousands of social media users who signaled that police misconduct had again been caught on video in McKinney haven’t fallen on deaf ears.

Yet there is a creeping national narrative that seeks to re-cast #BlackLivesMatter as a symbol of ill will — one that incites lawlessness and pits law enforcement authorities against the communities they serve.

And Texas is ground zero for the debate. The backdrop of loss, misinformation and justifiable outrage surrounding the senseless killing of a sheriff’s deputy in Houston is the latest example in a nationwide rhetorical campaign that seeks to discredit the peaceful efforts of thousands by using their own words. Take, for example, the elected officials who have rephrased the term #BlackLivesMatter as "all lives matter," using the turn of phrase in an attempt to silence activists.

Listen carefully and you’ll hear the new narrative about #BlackLivesMatter in claims that spikes in violent crime are the result of the “Ferguson Effect” — the theory that demands for greater transparency and accountability in policing will lead to a drop in the effectiveness of law enforcement.

It’s there in the discourse of political figures like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who attempted to blame those petitioning for justice in Ferguson, Baltimore and beyond for “intimidating” law enforcement out of doing their jobs.

It’s there in cable news analysis by commentators who question whether and when individuals acting under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter should be characterized as a hate group.

Last week, I was alarmed to find it in the subtext of a statement from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, urging Texans to call police officers “sir or ma’am.” That evoked the code of Jim Crow that required the same if Blacks were to survive encounters with anyone of authority, including police.

In times of crisis, like the one Texas faces now as Houston lays Deputy Darren Goforth to rest, it seems callous to call attention to issues of language and rhetorical campaigns to discredit a movement. But if Patrick and other state officials want to avoid further splintering Texas communities, they would be wise not to exploit #BlackLivesMatter for political gain.

Texas has performed better than some regions in public calls for accountability. Authorities have provided records in a timely fashion, been transparent about the steps taken in cases of overly aggressive policing and shown up to engage with families of victims rather than waiting to be called out from the wings.

But as the tenor of the national debate around policing swings in the opposite direction, it would do a disservice to our state to allow the Houston officer killing — for which there exists no clear motive — to be used as part of the political machine seeking to silence disenfranchised communities.

Creators and supporters of the phrase #BlackLivesMatter stand for recognizing the humanity of the marginalized, increasing transparency and accountability in our law enforcement and judicial systems, and eradicating elements that reinforce structural racism. The misapplication of the phrase to construct an unsubstantiated narrative of violent, unreasonable, irrational actions is dangerous for our democracy.

Our officials should take care of what they say and how they say it.

Meredith Clark

Assistant Professor, Mayborn School of Journalism