‘All Lives Matter’ or How to Self-Righteously Erase a History of Racism
The slogan ‘All Lives Matter’, reputed to be a criticism and moral corrective to the exclusivist Black Lives Matter movement, precisely demonstrates how patronizing racist attitudes can appear to be legitimate when they are couched in the language of a universal claim. In fact, pitting the expression ‘All Lives Matter’ (or worse, ‘Cops Lives’ Matter, or ‘Buildings’ Matter) against the name of a justice movement called ‘Black Lives Matter’ is itself an act of racial violence and discrimination: it captures how self-righteous white people would like to extinguish any suggestion that cop violence against black people in the present is part of a wretched history of violence, torture and discrimination against black people. The point behind black lives ‘mattering’ is one of moral recognition—the recognition that in America’s historically and systemically racist culture, black lives have not mattered. One need only look back at laws regarding slavery or racist laws in Nazi Germany to see how law can be used to legitimate profound systems of injustice. That is the problem: disingenuously saying ‘all lives matter’ in racist America is like saying ‘all lives matter’ in anti-Semitic Germany. The fact is, in both cases some lives do not matter at all.
Systemic discrimination against black people by white people in positions of power is ‘systemic’ precisely because it has been legitimated (normalized) through institutions, social practices and law and order rhetoric intentionally blind to histories of oppression and inequality. Institutions have one basic priority: to perpetuate themselves. In Canada anti-Chinese immigration, the Indian Act and the Residential School system, in the US the ‘war on drugs’ and Jim Crow laws are examples of how racism can be normalized at an institutional level—and for that reason, very difficult to reform. When racism and police unaccountability become systemic, piecemeal reforms are just not going to help much—in fact they will often perpetuate racism. Systemic institutionalized racism gives cover to the white person whose appeal to ‘law and order’ is not an appeal for justice but a desire to maintain a discriminatory status quo where whites have power over blacks or Indigenous peoples.
It begins by segregating and ghettoizing black (or Indigenous) groups—creating conditions that intentionally disenfranchise them by denying them secure employment, proper healthcare, reasonable living accommodations. Ghettoization and segregation are the racialized socio-economic conditions that inevitably give rise to homelessness, poverty, alcoholism, loitering, public disturbances, minor acts of vandalism, graffiti and drug addiction. These latter then become the rationalization for constant police surveillance and criminalization. Over time the indiscriminate use of force emerges as a culture of police sadism and brutality. Even complete submissiveness and docility are no protection against police use of excessive force against black people.
Criminal courts have claimed again and again that the use of pepper spray, tasers, beatings and homicidal choking and shootings are reasonable responses when ‘officer safety’ is at stake. The first problem with this logic is that ‘officer safety’ is a completely bullshit threshold—cop unions (which should be de-certified as unions) have been pushing this idea for the last 20 years or so over against what should be their prime directive: citizen safety. Cops are supposed to be peace officers trained to de-escalate situations, not soldiers in a warzone who kill anything that moves. But that is what they have become. Like firefighters, cops are paid very well precisely because it is assumed that they may sometimes encounter violent situations and risk their lives. Can you imagine if a fireman refused to save someone who could be saved because they thought it was personally too risky?? The fact is that firemen risk their lives all the time to save people, and they do it because they believe their number one priority is saving people. That does not mean they should not take precautions or act in an impulsive manner. But part of their job does involve risk, just as it does for construction workers, loggers, roofers, truck drivers, electricians, garbage workers, taxi drivers—all jobs considered much more dangerous than policing and all compensated at a far lower rate of pay.
The notion of ‘officer safety’ gives cops a license to tase, beat, pepper spray or kill anyone they deem to be in the least threatening. This is not about public safety, it is about societies that continue to fund a cult of self-aggrandizing police thugs; it is not about keeping the peace and presuming citizens have rights, it is about excessive violence against anyone who in any way does not abjectly bow before police authority. Once laws that criminalize black and indigenous communities are put in place—such as broken windows—it becomes all too easy to justify discriminatory ‘stop and frisk’ policies.
Yes, all lives do, in fact, matter. And justice should be blind to race, sex or religious affiliation. These are humanist and enlightenment ideals. But in the context of America’s and Canada’s racist history it has become clear that some lives simply do not matter at all, and policing and justice systems are all too ready to reduce those who are neither white nor powerful to something less than human.