Alton Sterling was shot and killed in front of a store by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 5, 2016, leading to loud complaints of police brutality and excessive force.
The next day Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in his car in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. We know the vast majority of police are fair-minded and respect the human dignity and worth of all citizens. Some, however, are not. There is documented evidence that bias and racial prejudice influence the attitudes and actions of some police officers.
The very next day, July 7, 2016, shots rang out in Dallas, Texas, during a peaceful protest and a sniper slaughtered five officers. On July 17, 2016, three more officers were murdered in Baton Rouge. Both murderers, African-Americans, were killed by police. We all know that the work of police officers is very difficult and very dangerous. They leave their homes each day not knowing if they will return unharmed. They deserve our respect and gratitude. Their lives matter. The heartbreaking images of blood stained scenes of death, grieving relatives, multiple funerals, overwhelmed civic leaders, and prayers for healing and reconciliation have become commonplace. It is a grief that cannot be spoken and a pain that does not end. President Obama, his face and voice revealing his personal anguish in the face of yet another mass murder of police, said after the Baton Rouge shootings, "An attack on our police is an attack on all of us. There is no need for inflammatory language. We need to lower our voices and open our hearts to each other!"
DeRay Mckesson, 31, has given voice to the racial divide as a Black Lives Matter leader. He was arrested during a peaceful protest in Baton Rouge following the shooting death of Alton Sterling and was unable to be with us at Chautauqua. In his place, former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young; Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church's Pastor, Rev. Raphael Warnock, and his wife, Ouleye Ndoye; and journalist Bill Moyers engaged in an energetic debate about the Black Lives Matter Movement. Ambassador Young, 84, an elder statesman of the Civil Rights Movement, expressed serious concerns about Black Lives Matter. With his usual candor, he said Black Lives Matter was self-centered, disorganized, and lacked a clear focus. He argued that no one really knows what the movement supporters want. When Dr. King staged a protest march, he said it was always for a specific purpose and city officials were informed in advance. This is essential for safety, which Black Lives Matter ignores. This can lead to violence and deadly accidents. Rev. Warnock and his wife responded that the movement is young and unstructured and will grow and mature over time. But it should not be dismissed. Nor should it be blamed for the violence against police. They asserted that Black Lives Matter is concerned about many of the same issues that concerned Mr. Young in his youth. "When Dr. King said that the Negro will not be satisfied until police brutality is ended, that was his way of saying Black Lives Matter."
After the ambush murder of three Baton Rouge officers, DeRay Mckesson told CNN, "My heart goes out to the victims of all violence. We want to live in a world where people don't die by gunfire. And we want to live in a world where police don't have militarized weapons and the public doesn't have access to these militarized weapons either."
Mckesson said that Black Live Matter "has always been rooted in a call to end violence and ... that call remains the call today. ... It's this interesting thing that people are frustrated that black people are focusing on the unique trauma that black people are facing in this country," he remarked. "And I would never go to a breast cancer rally and yell out colon cancer matters."
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I do not believe that "Black Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter" are necessarily incompatible. "All Lives Matter" is not necessarily a way to divert attention from the urgent concerns of African-American people. In order for there to be some compatibility between the two expressions, however, it is necessary to acknowledge the legitimacy of the particular concern for the lives of People of Color. This is not something all Americans recognize.
If I am secure in my comfortable home with my family on a cold winter night with the fireplace burning and more than enough to eat, my life matters. But the doorbell rings and there is a shivering, starving homeless family at the door in dire need of food and shelter. I tell them to find a shelter. They respond, "Our lives matter." I say, "So does mine and my family's." But I quickly realize that, in that instance, it is their lives and not mine that are in peril.
If you simply say "All Lives Matter," there is a danger of falsely implying that every group of Americans is facing the same degree of peril which then makes it possible to ignore or deny pressing issues like the frequent violent and fatal treatment of African-Americans in the face of minor or suspected misconduct. They seem to be tried, convicted and sentenced to death on the streets. Aggrieved individuals and groups feel that those who say "All Lives Matter!" do not really mean it. They point to George Orwell's "Animal Farm." In the novel "All animals are equal" became, "All animals are equal. But, some animals are more equal than others!" The point of Black Lives Matter is that many in the African-American community face existential threats that must not be ignored.