There Are No Blue Lives

There is a growing effort across the United States to pass laws defining violence against police officers as a “hate crime.” That this idea is gaining traction tells us a lot about the authoritarian moment we are in.

Hate crime laws are reserved for acts of violence against members of groups identified along lines of race, gender, etc., identities perceived to be organic, marked by traits usually unalterable/imposed by society. This special class of law is aimed at deterring violence directed at minority groups/historically oppressed populations.

In contrast, being a police officer is an occupation, like a firefighter or sanitation worker. Or college professor. Occupations are not at all like race and gender. A firefighter is not like a black person. A person chooses to become a police officer. And when he is not on the job, he can take off the uniform. He is not a “Blue Life.” A black person is born black, dies black, and lives black in between.

There’s something disturbing about responding to black civilian deaths at the hands of cops by suggesting that risk associated with an occupation is comparable to the suffering of victims of race oppression. More than disturbing, frankly.

Cop violence against civilians is often marked by racial bias, yet how often are cops charged with hate crimes where the evidence is clear that it was the race of the victim that at some point motivated the officer’s actions? Racial profiling is not a form of bias? I know of no serious research that contradicts the general finding that racial profiling is a serious problem in law enforcement.

Imagine if we passed hate crime laws for teachers, sanitation workers, firefighters, mail carriers, and so on. Why don’t we? Because protecting these groups provides no ideological value for advocates of the police state. That’s right, the purpose of making “Blue Lives” a category akin to black lives is the perpetuation/promotion of law and order/crime control policies.

In this way, “Blue Lives Matter” functions like “Support Our Troops,” slogans designed to deter criticism of public institutions and policies. 

This is unfortunate, because, in a representative democratic republic based on individual liberty, those who have an official control function – who usually carry guns, Tasers, pepper spray, batons, and handcuffs – must be subject to strict professional standards, continual evaluation of performance, and consequences for behavior that imperils the public.

Even if we were to accept the (absurd and repugnant) premise that having a job in law enforcement makes the employee like a black man, the reality is, based on the data I have seen, it has never been safer to be a cop in America. Violence against police officers has been declining for years (this year is on track to surpass last year, but we have no way of knowing whether this is a trend or an anomaly). On the list of most dangerous jobs, police officer doesn’t crack the top ten. It’s much more dangerous to be a sanitation worker (or a lumberjack or a commercial fisher).

Such legislation is not about addressing a “wave” of cop killings across the United States. It’s propaganda designed to treat the police as a special class in order to reinforce the legitimacy of the coercive state apparatus. With the historic decline in crime in the United States, and with police violence against civilians rising, an ever growing number of citizens are wondering whether it isn’t time to rethink the path we have been on, to consider rolling back aggressive policing tactics, draconian laws, cruel sentencing guidelines, and mass incarceration, all of which have a disproportionately negative impact on minorities, particularly blacks. 

Those employed by the vast control apparatus, as well as those who  benefit from it in a myriad of ways, have an interest in preventing a public conversation about policing and racism in America. Hence “Blue Lives Matter.” But there is no such thing as “Blue Lives.”

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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