The problem of ambiguity in Black Lives Matter


Black lives matter. Of course the vast majority of us believe and defend this proposition. Most of us also believe that racism is still present around us. And almost no one believes that violence against innocent police officers is acceptable. But I still have significant reservations about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

The movement suffers from indirection. At, they explain, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

The statement is at once bold and nebulous. It is both an affirmation of Black issues and culture as well as a broad platform for anti-racism. Though not stated, the ostensible goal of Black Lives Matter is to decrease police violence against Blacks and, by extension, everyone. The loss of any life is tragic; the disproportionate loss of Black lives at the hands of police is egregious. The shameful history of race-relations in the United States makes this disproportionality even more painful and poignant. Our (and BLM’s) yearning for equity and justice—if not in general, at least from the institutions and individuals sworn to protect us and uphold the peace—is intuitive; unfortunately, it is also simplistic. It is a fact that Black people are disproportionately targeted and aggressed by the police. But it is also a fact that Black people disproportionately live in low-income communities that have a disproportionate level of crime.

Statistics like “25% of the people killed by the police so far this year were Black, even though they only represent 13% of the population” imply a misleading generality: They seem to suggest that in any interaction with police anywhere, Black people are more likely to experience violence. Although this may actually be the case, the causal story is probably much more complex.  I do not mean to excuse unjustified police violence, but if we really want to reduce deaths by police, we should pay attention to the underlying dynamics that produce those deaths. And “racism” is, in my opinion, too easily misunderstood and too nebulous a dynamic to productively oppose and address.

I have no doubt that many cops witness gun violence on a daily bases. And the vast majority of that violence takes place in poor racial neighborhoods. Still, I have no problem defaming police violence, or punishing guilty officers. I suspect the ego involved in penal authority attracts some of the best and worst kind of people. But at least part of the responsibility for their racism is my own. It is the poor schools, the bad immigration policies, the perpetuated ghettos, and social dynamics.

To some extent, we are all responsible for the racism we see exhibited in the police force. I have lived in downtown Minneapolis—about five miles from both Falcon Heights and St. Anthony’s. It is an incredibly diverse city bloated with gangs, ghettos, and immigrants from Laos and Somalia. I loved my time there and the people I met from a variety of religions and races. But I would have been blind to ignore the resulting complexities.

If the eyes of our police have been colored, it’s probably not the result of an ideological hatred towards black people but the messy result of complex and dysfunctional social structures—the very complexities we send our police officers to clean up. So while racism exists, we all shoulder some of the responsibility which should make us generous in our critique even if more committed to change.

My issue with the Black Lives Matter

My issue with the Black Lives Matter movement is that, though it seems to have a formal cause, it struggles to settle on any specific tasks, steps, or legislation beyond catalyzing rage and indignation. The platform is practically immortal. There can never be a time when their mission will be accomplished, when the standard can be rested, or wounds healed.

A good counter example, with a similar political motive, was the organization Freedom to Marry. This was an organization advocating gay marriage. They had a clear legislative goal, deep and dynamic organization, and specific plans for specific ends. And once they accomplished their goal, they dissolved the organization—hence why I’m speaking in past tense. Now, all that remains on their website is the story of their success—from inception to fruition. While there is a lot of energy behind Black Lives Matter, I question its direction, productivity, and effectiveness.

The problem with indirection in Black Lives Matter is deeper than ineffectuality. A movement calling for protests, revolts, and rallies plays with fire. There is no room for ambiguity when a protester’s blood begins to boil, when a rally becomes lively, or when an ideology is given tinder. Such potent and deadly energy must be harnessed towards productivity or else risk erupting in unpredictable and catastrophic directions, as was the case yesterday in Dallas.

Of course the vast majority of protestors would never condone shooting a police officer and the organization cannot be held entirely responsible for the action of its members. As best I can tell, the Black Lives Matter movement has channeled the nonviolence protest of Martin Luther King Jr. over an early Malcom X. And I am sure they are as horrified as I am by the violence that took place at their protest last night. But the movement is not entirely innocent of the crimes either.

An organization that actively promotes civil distress through inflammatory rhetoric carries some responsibility for the resulting consequences even if unintended. In fact, my point here should sound oddly familiar. Even if an organization denounces violence, if it creates violence there is still a conversation to be had. Isn’t that the very thing Black Lives Matter says about police brutality? Every police organization denounces dishonesty, brutality, and racism. But if dishonesty, brutality, and racism still happen, suddenly what they claim to preach doesn’t matter so much. Perhaps police forces and Black Lives Matter have something in common here.

If Black Lives Matter is indeed channeling the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights era, they should establish more pointed and particular goals—specifically legislative goals. In Selma, the civil activist protested voting rights. In Montgomery, they protested policy of racial segregation on the public transit system that a little over a year later culminated in the supreme court decision of Browder vs Gayle. Until the Black Lives Matters movement establishes specific goals beyond inciting indignation, it remains volatile and predisposed towards violence.

17 thoughts on “The problem of ambiguity in Black Lives Matter

  1. When tragedy struck yesterday, BLM activists flooded newsfeeds with outrage. Today, however, the very same friends on social media are silent…almost condoning the Dallas shootings. BML promotes aggression, racial hate, and creates more divisiveness than solutions. This article articulates the problems of BLM and other organizations/movements that tap raw emotion with no detailed goals in mind.

    1. At least 50% of the social channels I follow support #blacklivesmatter and every single one of them spoke out about the Dallas shootings. #BlackLivesMatter does not promote aggression or racial hate, as confirmed by the Police Chiefs in both Dallas and Austin, but your comment certainly does.

      1. Gabby,
        I should have responded to Chad before now. He does come across as more antagonistic than I would have hoped. You also come across as a bit aggressive in your response. I know you better than Chad and understand why you might be frustrated. People made some very rude and judgmental comments on your Facebook post about the Dallas shooting–comments that seem to parallel Chad’s perspective here. If I knew Chad better (or at all) I might have a better understanding of where he’s coming from. I know this is a sensitive topic, and I do my best to express opinions in a moderate and understanding way. I apologize if I have generated misunderstanding or created divisive talking points. That was not my intention.

      2. What authority do police chiefs have over BLM? Are they their representatives? Are you? Do you honestly believe because your social channels didn’t show what mine did that that actually negates my experiences or social channels? I’ve had BLM ‘acvitists’ in my face spitting as they’re shouting because I didn’t join their frenzied mob. What about the countless videos of ridiculous and aggressive ‘activists’? What about the very clear videos of the Milwaukee mobs calling for white violence? I call it how I see it and don’t pretend otherwise. I’ve personally seen activists hijack a LGBT Pride Day event (after they were graciously allowed to speak and abused that privledge) and then have the gall to try to sue the LGBT speaker for ‘assaulting’ her because he attempted to take his microphone back. Those are very real aggressive experiences compliments of Black Lives Matter activists.

        It wasn’t my wish to antagonize any individual, but sure, you could say I meant it towards BLM. Why? Several reasons besides my own experiences: Where is BLM when black on black violence occurs? Where are they when gangs tear up cities like Chicago and kill innocent bystandards? Why don’t they patrol the streets and protect black lives from gang and drug violence instead of block highways, shout people down, etc…? Where is the justice for single mothers who have been abandoned? Do those black lives not matter? Why are those who are so vocal on police shootings and perceived racial crimes so silent on leading causes for real African-American threats? If I come across angry, it’s because I am angry. People are suffering and instead of tackling the most critical issues head-on with real solutions, most people I encounter wish to live in a fantasy world and prefer to crucify the most convenient scapegoat regardless of law, order, or reason. That’s both excruciatingly frustrating and utterly depressing.

        Mr. Sabey’s article took a head-on, logical approach in evaluating the BLM from a logical standpoint which was performed admirably in my opinion. I simply added one of my experiences with the organization that I found shocking. I’m under no illusions nor claimed that every person in BLM is awful, racist, and aggressive. But those good-willed people need to form something new and do it fast because lives are lost and shattered daily in black (and other) communities across the nation.

    2. Chad,
      Thanks for reading and responding. My experience is a little different than yours. I have many friends who actively promote and defend BLM. Each of them (as far as I can tell) also lamented the tragedy at Dallas and many of them posted about it on Facebook. I know this is a sensitive topic, and I do not know what your experience has been. Our goal on this blog is to express opinions in a moderate way to generate understanding rather than rage. I apologize if I have generated misunderstanding or created divisive talking points. That was not my intention. Thanks again for reading.

      1. I’m not condemning the good people in the BLM movement, but it seems to become an avenue for some to focus a form of unorganized aggression towards a nebulous and immortal end which is basically bad chemistry in any movement. My experience has been the same since my first posting. My BLM friends (except one) ignored Dallas in their status updates yet continued onwards to Milwaukee where BLM ‘activists’ are calling on others to beat whites and burn suburbs down. I’m not trying to be antagonistic, but trying to call it how I see it without blinders. I honestly feel if the good-hearted members of BLM could form something new and organized they could accomplish a great deal of good. Oftentimes when I see BLM in person or on the news, the ‘activists’ (which can be anyone who claims such) are SUPER aggressive and in your face towards anyone or anything that doesn’t blindly join with whatever they’re doing (for good or ill).

    1. Just read through the article. Didn’t love it, and definitely don’t trust the source. But the premise is interesting. I would love to look deeper into this. Thanks for pointing it out!

  2. Josh, I’m over the moon that there’s a Brother Sabey article bringing up the topic of racism. Good on you. I’m also loving the new tagline (is it new, or did I just miss it before?) — Conservatives with Liberal Friends.

    Speaking as one of your liberal friends, and a supporter of #blacklivesmatter, you won’t be surprised that I have some issues with what you wrote.

    1) I don’t think Freedom to Marry is a good counter example and while I’m not opposed to the idea of the Black Lives Matter movement focusing on legislative goals, I disagree that legislative goals are necessary for the movement to be effective. In the current iteration of Black Lives Matter, I think a stronger example might be the #ImAMormon campaign. Sometimes the goal of a campaign is simply to raise awareness. When should the I’m a Mormon campaign expire? When everyone understands that all Mormons aren’t a cookie cutter copy of Mitt Romney? How would you measure that?

    Additionally, in comparison with Freedom to Marry, the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t carefully started as an organization with a specific plan. It started as a hashtag that happened to go viral. The movement is in its infancy. It’s growing and changing. The main goal may turn out to be simply raising awareness and understanding of what it means to be black in America. If awareness is the goal, I think it’s doing a fantastic job of getting conversations (like this one) started.

    2) When you say you’re not ready to get behind Black Lives Matter and support it, what does that mean? What type of support do you picture yourself withholding? Are we talking about not using the hashtag when you tweet (do you tweet?), or is it more about expressing your support/non-support over dinner with friends?

    I ask because it seems a little bit like you are making it about you when that’s not needed. Sort of like, hey, there’s this movement that was not made by or for or about me, and I’ve concluded that it’s not set up the way I would prefer, so I’m not going to support it.

    3) I take issue in a big way with your statements that the group is responsible — even somewhat — for promoting violence. If the Black Lives Matter organizers tell us it’s a peace-seeking group, and they do tell us that (“We are committed to embodying and practicing justice, liberation, and peace in our engagements with one another.”), then we should believe them. I think the Black Lives Matter movement holds zero responsibility for the murder of police officers in Dallas. They don’t advocate for violence, so if someone is being violent, they are not doing it on behalf of Black Lives Matter. (The same thing is true with ISIS and Muslims, if Muslims tell us they don’t advocate for violence and reject ISIS, then we must believe that and understand that ISIS isn’t representative of Muslims.)

    4) What about your black friends and neighbors and co-workers and church members? Do they support Black Lives Matter? Do they feel the movement is good and necessary? If you put a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard would they appreciate it and assume that Josh & Sarah know that being black in America is a hard and dangerous thing? Not all black Americans support the movement, but if the black people in your life do, if they feel it is helping, then shouldn’t that be enough reason to support it?

    1. Thanks for your response. In regards to your first point, I think you are right about the I’m a Mormon campaign being a good counter example to what I used. I think you are right to suggest that specific goals (legislative or otherwise) are not the only legit reasons for a movement. My only reservation is that the I’m a Mormon campaign doesn’t generate rallies or protests that can easily become violent–particularly when there is limited direction.

      To your second point, when I say I can’t entirely get behind black lives matter, this is simply a way of saying I have some concerns with it. And I think I have the right to express concerns. The movement, as I understand it, is about me in at least one way: because “I am part of the problem” as is often said on Facebook. It seems a little like telling a non-Mormon that the I’m a Mormon campaign isn’t about them. While I can only speak from my context, it is not an entirely irrelevant context particularly considering how polarizing the issue has become. If the goal of BLM (I love that the acronym also stands for the Bureau of Land Management) is to spread awareness and generate understanding, a careful analysis of common “concerns” and reasons for “opposition” seems more than a little relevant.

      I don’t have much to add to what I already said in the article about your third point. I agree that BLM in may ways isn’t responsible for what happened in Dallas and that most of them are as horrified about Dallas as I am. But again, all police forces and the law itself forbid racism. But if it happens… I think its helpful to admit rather than deny potential shortcomings or predispositions of a movement, be it Islam, Christianity, or BLM. That way you can address and moderate undesirable outcomes. But on the other side of things, it is also necessary and healthy to draw lines and say, “this is not us” as Mormons have done with the FLDS and Muslims have done with terrorists. But there is always an estuary and the line is never as clear as we pronounce it. There are things that can be done within the organization to moderate those estuaries and limit undesirable outcomes.

      To your fourth point, I have Black friends on both sides of the equation. Your last question is interesting and I would have to answer no. Someone else’s feelings is not enough to generate my support. BUT it is a very persuasive reason. Perhaps that is why I often find myself giving standing ovations (because I want someone to feel validated) even when I don’t believe the performance deserved it.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful response. It has made me think things over and I hope I come across interested not argumentative.

      1. Can I press you for some clarification? If one of your black friends published a post on Facebook about a meaningful experience they had, and you really enjoyed it and wanted to share, but they tagged it with #blacklivesmatter, would you not share it? I guess I’m asking, are you non-supportive of Black Lives Matter to the point that you would never share or retweet anything with a #blacklivesmatter hashtag, no matter how much the content resonated with you? Do you find yourself avoiding “liking” posts that use the hashtag?

      2. I am definitely not beyond sharing something with a #blacklivesmatters hashtag. If I like something to the point of wanting to share it, a hashtag would not stop me. I am not a hard-nosed opponent of the movement. The question of avoiding liking posts using the hashtag is harder. I would say it’s not the hashtag that I would avoid. If I avoided liking something, it would be because of the concerns I have expressed.

      3. Thanks, Josh. I was just trying to wrap my head around what you might mean by support or non-support of the movement.

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