Why Walmart pulled a 'Black Lives Matter' shirt from its website

Walmart said it pulled a Black Lives Matter shirt emblazoned with the word 'Bulletproof' from its website, following a letter from the Fraternal Order of Police that called the shirts 'offensive' and said they accentuated divisions.

Ted S. Warren/AP/File
Teachers, students and parents across Seattle public schools wore "Black Lives Matter" shirts one Wednesday in October to promote racial equity in schools. Walmart has said it will pull shirts emblazoned with "Bulletproof: Black Lives Matter," but not those that read only "Black Lives Matter", from its website following a letter from the Fraternal Order of Police that called the shirts "offensive." The clothing was being sold by a third-party vendor on Walmart's website.

Walmart agreed to pull a Black Lives Matter shirt emblazoned with the word “Bulletproof” from its website, in a move that highlights the challenge facing retailers on social justice issues – as well as efforts by communities and police to promote unity while acknowledging criticism.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police organization in the country, had originally asked Walmart to pull two shirts from its website: the “Bulletproof” shirt, which reads “Black Lives Matter” in smaller font on a second line; and a shirt that reads simply “Black Lives Matter.” Both shirts are sold on Walmart’s website by a third-party vendor, Connecticut-based Old Glory Merchandise. In a letter on Tuesday, Fraternal Order of Police president Chuck Canterbury told Walmart CEO C. Douglas McMillon that the shirts were “offensive” and "profiting from racial division."

For the Fraternal Order of Police, the T-shirt encourages community division and even violence, and it detracts from efforts to sow cooperation between police and the communities they serve, Mr. Canterbury argued. But others suggest that Black Lives Matter is a peaceful movement that, by calling attention to a history of differential treatment, has an important role to play in forging unity going forward. 

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

The Black Lives Matter movement emerged after the death of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Since then, it has been working to advocate for black Americans: In August, the movement released a six-part platform aimed at addressing historical grievances. 

According to Professor Alexander, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” – and the movement associated with it – highlight “the irrefutable fact that historically black lives have not mattered, or have not been valued in the same manner as white lives.”

But Black Lives Matter has drawn criticism from law enforcement officials, who may see it as an affront to their daily efforts to protect their communities.

After police union members said they felt Walmart was selling anti-police clothing, the Fraternal Order of Police decided to ask the company to remove those items from their website, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Washington Post reported.

“Commercializing our differences will not help our local police and communities to build greater trust and respect for one another,” Canterbury wrote in Tuesday’s letter, posted on the Washington Post's website.

For Walmart, the solution has been a compromise of sorts. The company decided to pull the “Bulletproof” shirt, while allowing vendors to continue selling Black Lives Matter shirts. Also available from third-party vendors on Walmart’s website are shirts for Blue Lives Matter, an organization that “seeks to honor and recognize the actions of law enforcement” and encourage public support for law enforcement, as well as All Lives Matter.

Across the country, Black Lives Matter activists and local police forces have been finding ways to share their experiences and improve their understanding of others’ perspectives. 

After a peaceful march in Wichita, Kansas in July, local activists met with Police Chief Gordon Ramsay and decided to cancel their next march in favor of a free community cookout. One officer, Lt. Travis Rakestraw, sat with three men, including Hispanic student Ivan Ray. The way Ray looked at police violence through the lens of other social issues was illuminating, Lt. Rakestraw said, according to the Associated Press.

In August, National Night Out brought together neighbors and police officers. With the air of a traditional community get-together, the event was intended to forge unity between citizens and law enforcement.

“With the climate in the past two years, it’s extremely important that we celebrate National Night Out to show the unity among each other,” Washington, D.C. assistant police chief Diane Groomes told the Monitor’s Nicole Orttung.

“The only way to get beyond the divisions is to become honest with the history,” says Alexander. 

Not everyone agrees that Black Lives Matter is doing that: Carol Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, told CNN's Michael Smerconish that the organization is “not really addressing the real problems affecting African-Americans.”

But others say the movement’s efforts have already made a difference. 

"Black Lives Matter has done more to move the needle on reforms in the criminal justice system than elected officials and community leaders all over this country,” countered civil rights attorney Areva Martin on the same CNN program.

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