In the aftermath of the killings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte at the hands of police in 2016, the Blue Lives Matter hashtag rallied around a video of a group of black youth attacking a white man and taking his pants off in a parking garage in Charlotte. The caption that the most popular Blue Lives Matter Twitter account provided for the video reads, “What happens when your POTUS hates the police and when his ideal sons represent Trayvon Martin.” It is worth noting that you can’t make out anyone’s faces in this video —by “representing Trayvon Martin” they don’t mean they look particularly similar to him, but that Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter protesters, and perhaps black men in general are all violent and brutal. Or, as one reply to the tweet put it, they are “fucking thugs [who] deserve whatever bad shit that happens to them.”
Other replies to the video include “Animal behavior!” “what a cowardly reprehensible race of ppl,” and “and Dems want gun control — SMH.” Reactions like these seem to be exactly what the decontextualized video is going for. Though the behavior displayed in the video is far from life-threatening, it’s all the validation that Blue Lives Matter needs for its own narrative of the current controversy over police violence: the media is vilifying police officers while the real problem is black violence.
To the Blue Lives Matter crowd, police aren’t to blame for killings, rather they should be thanked for defending the white public from thugs like those depicted in the video, who could, apparently, strike at any moment. At least Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter agree on one thing: one of the goals of police in the United States seems to be to control black people through the use of violence. The problem is Blue Lives Matter defends this as a good thing.
Blue Lives Matter began on December 20, 2014. Their own account of their beginnings is a good summary of their views of current events:
On August 9, 2014, Ferguson PD Officer Darren Wilson was doing his job as he stopped Michael Brown, who had just committed a robbery of a local convenience store. Brown attacked Officer Wilson in an aggravated assault. Officer Wilson was forced to defend his life by shooting Brown. In the months that followed, agitators spread outright lies and distortions of the truth about Officer Wilson and all police officers. The media catered to movements such as Black Lives Matter, whose goal was the vilification of law enforcement. Criminals who rioted and victimized innocent citizens were further given legitimacy by the media as “protesters.” America watched as criminals destroyed property, and assaulted and murdered innocent people, and they labeled these criminals as victims. Personal responsibility for one’s actions went away, replaced by accusations of racism and an unjust government.
According to this narrative, it seems as though all those killed by police are personally responsible for their own actions, and are falsely “labeled as victims” after they assault and murder people. Ironically enough, framing it this way is a bald-faced attempt to make “personal responsibility for one’s actions” go away for police by presenting killers like Darren Wilson as the true victims.
And some police are victims. Blue Lives Matter’s history of their early days continues with a brief mention of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were killed in December 2014 by someone who seems to have been seeking revenge for the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. However, the organization’s narrative quickly moves away from Officers Ramos and Liu and back to Darren Wilson, concluding with, “The officers who founded this organization were motivated by the heroic actions of Officer Darren Wilson, and many others, and decided to create this organization in the hopes that it could prevent more officers from being hurt.”
This celebration of actions like Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown as “heroic” is a central aspect of the Blue Lives Matter movement. For example, there has been an outpouring of support for Betty Shelby, who shot and killed Terence Crutcher. This is not just a cultural phenomenon but an institutional one; Daniel Pantaleo, who choked and killed Eric Garner, saw his salary raise to $120,000 afterwards. The message being sent to many police is that if they kill an unarmed person, they either simply get praised by their peers and employers or become a celebrated martyr like Darren Wilson.
Of course, to present people like Darren Wilson as heroes, their victims must be presented as villains. This is where the rhetoric surrounding the tweeted video from Charlotte becomes so crucial to Blue Lives Matter’s core message. If shooters like Darren Wilson are actually victims and heroes, and the people they shoot are the true villains, then each and every time police shoot someone, it is another example of police on the defense in a nationwide war on them by predominately black aggressors.
While it might make for a provoking narrative, the idea that police and not black people are the ones under attack is not supported by data. As Dr. GS Potter notes in The Huffington Post, the murder rate for the general population in the US is 5.6 per 100,000. For firefighters and EMTs, it is 6.1 and 7.0 per 100,000 respectively. For police, the murder rate is just 4 per 100,000. Even when considering more causes of death than just murder (a police officer is more likely to be killed in a traffic accident, for example, than by gunfire), the position of police officer remains far from the most dangerous job in the United States, with fatal injury rates significantly below those of professions like logging worker, fisher, pilot, roofer, and refuse collector.
To put it more simply, in 2015, forty-two police were shot and killed in the line of duty. Meanwhile, nine hundred and ninety people were fatally shot by police in the same year. Even the most basic message of Blue Lives Matter requires a complete disregard for reality.
Through their inversion of the truth, Blue Lives Matter is not calling for respect and peace but for fear. It is in this environment of fear that the rate of police shootings has remained unhindered, continuing roughly at the same rate every year since 2015 (of course, there was no consistent data being collected prior to Black Lives Matter’s beginnings in 2014).
This remarkably unchanged data may come as a slight surprise considering the efforts made by many communities (and at least some city governments and police departments) to prevent police shootings since 2014. However, on a national scale, the redoubled culture of fear and racism among police outweighs whatever minor reforms that have been put in place so far.
Blue Lives Matter focuses on more than just police, but it always comes back to the core theme of xenophobia and fear-mongering. For example, one of the most talked about topics on the most popular Blue Lives Matter Twitter account and the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag is Donald Trump; support for Trump and support for Blue Lives Matter seems to go hand-in-hand. Even the much less popular “BlueLivesMtr” Twitter (a more official account of the Blue Lives Matter nonprofit that mostly retweets news articles) has come out in support of Trump. The connection between Blue Lives Matter and Trump goes beyond a shared conservatism, and it actually tells us a lot about the nature of Blue Lives Matter and its rhetoric of fear.
If presenting the violence of black thugs as the real problem wasn’t enough, Blue Lives Matter warns of a hodgepodge of looming threats that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Glenn Beck conspiracy chalkboard. Much of Blue Lives Matter’s refutation of Black Lives Matter does not focus on the issue of police violence at all, instead opting to use conspiracy theories to support a narrative of xenophobia and paranoia. The currently defunct Blue Lives Matter website used to state that “The Black Lives Matter organization is… a large, organized, well-planned and funded political action group with international outreach extending to Cuba, Northern Ireland, Europe and the Middle East. The BLM is a tentacle of a Marxist, revolutionary Global movement… [with] significant funding sources… from international currency manipulator and convicted criminal George Soros.” The same article argues that Black Lives Matter is a “menace” that doesn’t actually want to defend black lives but seeks to kill police and institute an antidemocratic Marxist regime.
Many have argued that Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric incites racist violence, pointing to the rough turns many Trump rallies have taken. Of course, Trump’s racist fear-mongering is hardly new to America, and it didn’t take a Trump presidency for racist violence become institutionalized. Blue Lives Matter is the quintessential Trump-era organization, fueled by — and inciting — fear and hatred of marginalized groups.
This is precisely what makes Blue Lives Matter so dangerous. The movement is not merely a conservative counterpoint to Black Lives Matter but is ammunition for the racial fears that drive police to shoot unarmed black men to begin with.
The slogan “Blue Lives Matter,” like “All Lives Matter,” is criticized for erasing the particularly high rates of police violence against black people. As a movement, however, Blue Lives Matter is more than a distraction from the almost daily acts of violence against black lives that police perpetrate. Their calls to protect “blue lives,” along with their defense (and even celebration) of police violence by framing black men as the true aggressors, make police more fearful of any encounter with black people.
The entire purpose of Blue Lives Matter is to present an image of police across the nation as being the ones truly under attack. And with that, the standard excuse for police to kill with impunity, “I feared for my life,” becomes an ideology. No longer do police need to see a suspect draw a gun to fear that their life is in danger. They just have to read some tweets.
UPDATE: The Blue Lives Matter website was taken down today, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Though the story is still developing at the time of this update, recent coverage has suggested Blue Lives Matter’s parent company Maven (best known for publishing Sports Illustrated and Maxim, as well as Being Liberal) faced financial strife due to revenue loss during the pandemic, while employees of Maven called for Blue Lives Matter to be shut down due to its racist comments sections and, as one employee put it, its advocacy of the “fascistic oppression of all Americans but especially black people, other POCs, LGBTQ, and the disabled.” A note on the website claims that “with recent events, it has become impossible to manage the influx of others who have come here to spew racist comments and encourage violence,” and promises that the Blue Lives Matter platform will return with a new name. Regardless of the name, the organization and the movement it fuels will almost certainly try to continue its legacy of racism, fear, and violence.
A version of this article was originally posted on Medium in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the circumstances in 2020.
Adam Quinn is a historian and a PhD student in the history department at the University of Oregon, who has written on the history of policing, radical social movements, and state responses to protest.