USA Society First Look

Police union to Amazon: take "Bulletproof: Black Lives Matter" shirts off shelves

The largest police union in the US said the t-shirts are detrimental to unity between law enforcement and the communities they serve, while other observers argue such critiques miss the point of the movement.

Marques Armstrong chants in support of Philando Castile at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in front of the Governor's Mansion in St. Paul, Minn., on July 7, 2016. The largest police union in the US is urging Amazon to pull t-shirts about the movement from its online marketplace.
Eric Miller/Reuters | Caption

The largest police union in the US is urging Amazon to remove a t-shirt that reads “Bulletproof: Black Lives Matter” from its online marketplace.

In an open letter to Amazon's chief executive, Jeff Bezos, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) said Wednesday that the t-shirt, sold through the website by a third-party vendor, is detrimental to the rebuilding of trust between police and black communities.

“Commercializing our differences and perpetuating the myths which harm the relationships between the protectors and their communities is wrong at any time of year, but it is especially egregious now,” writes FOP National President Chuck Canterbury. “I understand that these are third-party sales, but Amazon does have the ability to prohibit the sale of products which are offensive to the public and which may damage your company’s good name amongst FOP members and other active and retired law enforcement officers.”

Amazon isn’t the first company to come under fire for allegedly giving support to the Black Lives Matter movement, whether inadvertently or intentionally.Walmart removed the same apparel from its website after it received a similar complaint from the police union last week. A Blue Lives Matter blogger also slammed ice cream manufacturer Ben and Jerry’s last fall for issuing a public statement called "Black Lives Matter" that the blogger suggested could encourage attacks on police.     

These disputes may underscore how the Black Lives Matter movement, which was born out of protests against police use of force against African-Americans, particularly high-profile cases of unarmed men, is perceived by different groups. 

In contrast to those who say the movement promotes violence, others argue that it presents a chance to create unity. 

“Those who use the phrase do not advocate violence,” Shawn Alexander, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas, wrote in an email to The Christian Science Monitor last week, after Walmart chose to remove the t-shirts from its website. Efforts to paint Black Lives Matter as violent or divisive, he added, seek to “cover up the troublesome truth of America’s racist past and how that history continues to live and [affect] us today.”

The “Bulletproof: Black Lives Matter” t-shirt was sold by Connecticut-based Old Glory Merchandise through Amazon. As of Monday, the merchandise could be viewed on Amazon, but was listed as “currently unavailable” for purchase. Other Black Lives Matter merchandise could still be purchased on the site. Walmart, too, has continued to sell other merchandise that promotes both Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, which supports law enforcement, after pulling the "bulletproof" shirts from its shelves.

“Like other online retailers, we have a marketplace with millions of items offered by third parties that includes Blue Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter merchandise. After hearing concerns from customers, we are removing the specific item with the ‘bulletproof’ reference,” Walmart said in a statement.

Mr. Canterbury, the FOP president, told The Guardian that Amazon should follow suit because the apparel could contribute to further violence against police.

In an interview with the British newspaper, he cited the "amount of violence demonstrated at Black Lives Matter marches and the fact that eight police officers had been assassinated while protesting Black Lives Matter protests," referring to officers shot in separate incidents in Dallas and Baton Rouge last summer.

Backers of Black Lives Matter have said the gunmen were not affiliated with the movement.  

But Canterbury told The Guardian he believes anti-police rhetoric in the name of the protest group “had inspired people of feeble minds to strike out at police officers.”

Blue Lives Matter made a similar argument in October, when Ben and Jerry’s issued a public statement in support of Black Lives Matter. Ben and Jerry’s wrote in its initial post that although the company believes that all lives matter, including those of law enforcement officers, police interactions with the black population are vastly different than those of white populations.  

"That's why it's become clear to us at Ben & Jerry's that we have a moral obligation to take a stand now for justice and for Black lives," the company wrote.

“Ben & Jerry’s went beyond making a statement in support of civil rights when they actively accused law enforcement of widespread racism,” wrote Blue Lives Matter in a blog post. “By spreading these false and misleading statements, Ben & Jerry’s lends an appearance of legitimacy to the baseless claims that police officers are killing men based on the color of their skin.”

While these commercial issues have highlighted antagonism between different camps in this debate, other efforts have brought police and activists together. A Black Lives Matter protest in Wichita, Kansas this summer, for example, gained national attention when it turned into a community picnic with police. National Night Out, an annual event first introduced in 1984 to encourage communities to get to know their local police officers, took on new meaning in the wake of the police ambush in Dallas, which killed five officers and left several others wounded.

American trust of police remains high. According to a June 2016 Gallup poll, 56 percent of Americans said they had either a great deal or quite a lot of trust in the police force. Police have consistently ranked among the most trusted institutions, according to Gallup polling, but 2015 marked a recent low point, at 52 percent trust.

Glenn Morelli, the owner of Old Glory Merchandise, told CNN last week that he had decided to remove the "bulletproof" shirt from his own site. 

"It wasn’t a big seller at all. The Blue Lives Matter sells more than the Black Lives Matter or bulletproof shirts combined," he said. "We don't like to offend anybody."