Politicians Are Still Using Black Lives Matter as a Scare Tactic

Politicians Are Still Using Black Lives Matter as a Scare Tactic

In his appearance this past Sunday on Face the Nation, Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie resurrected one of his favorite talking points when he argued that Barack Obama’s recent comments “justifying” Black Lives Matter were “encouraging lawlessness in this country.”

The New Jersey governor was referring to a statement Obama made at the end of last week’s White House forum on criminal justice reform, when as The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery reported, he said that the movement to end racial bias in policing has raised “a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

Over the past year, a growing chorus of conservative pundits and politicians has railed against Black Lives Matter, often framing the movement as an anti-police crusade aimed at inciting violence. These condemnations usually appear after the deaths of police officers or outbursts of highly charged language at protests, but the evidence that the perpetrators possess any substantial connection to Black Lives Matter has ranged from slight to nonexistent. As Vox’s German Lopez pointed out last month, it’s unlikely that BLM would get very far if it actually advocated for anti-police violence since “targeting individual officers does nothing to achieve the movement's broader goals, and in fact may detract from them.”

That bit of logic hasn’t stopped Christie (or Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or the now dropped-out Scott Walker, for that matter) from mischaracterizing Black Lives Matter on the 2016 campaign trail. But given that candidates in the still-bloated GOP field are looking for a way to distinguish themselves, the move makes political sense, even if the numbers aren’t there to support it.

Placing Black Lives Matter activists in direct opposition to police officers without any factual support has become unsettlingly common. In a speech on Friday, FBI director James Comey expressed his belief that “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year” has negatively impacted police officers’ ability to do their jobs. It was a statement that appeared to lend credibility to the controversial (and highly speculative) “Ferguson effect,” which argues that video-recording technology and heightened scrutiny of police officers by the public has simultaneously disempowered police officers and emboldened criminals. And while a new study from the Justice Department finds that “the proportion of fatal attacks on officers attributable to ambushes [is] increasing,” the study ends its data collection at 2013—before the Ferguson protests and the emergence of Black Lives Matter.

Comey’s remarks (which he repeated on Monday) have been heavily scrutinized, and The New York Times reported that the White House quickly distanced itself from Comey. Over at The Atlantic, David Graham exposed the fundamental flaw in arguments like Comey’s: “If the Ferguson effect is real, and the current system can only provide security by means of questionable policing in communities of color, then American policing is much more troubled than its defenders have been willing to admit.” In a separate Atlantic article, Ta-Nehisi Coates added, “A theory of government which tells citizens to invest agents of the state with the power to mete out lethal violence, but discourages them from holding those officers accountable is not democracy.”

That’s one point Comey and the 2016 GOP contenders would be wise to remember. But it’s highly unlikely that the message will stick.