Louisiana ‘Blue Lives Matter’ law: How big a shift in police brutality debate?

If signed by the governor, Louisiana will be the first state in the nation to expand hate crimes to include police. A step toward protecting a group at risk or a move that dilutes hate crime laws?

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
The badge of Louisiana State Police Officer Brett Travis is covered with a black band in remembrance of slain Kentucky State Police Trooper Joseph Cameron Ponder at the Severns Valley Baptist Church in Elizabethtown, Ky., Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. Ponder died after being shot by a man he had stopped for speeding in western Kentucky.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is expected to sign into law the nation’s first so-called “Blue Lives Matter” law, extending hate crime protections to men and women wearing a police badge.

The bill, passed by the legislature in Baton Rouge this week, is controversial, coming amid a national debate over the shooting of unarmed black people by police officers. Expanding hate crime protections to all active and non-active police officers is seen by some as an attempt to muzzle law enforcement critics and to undermine efforts to curb the use of excessive force by police.

Moreover, extending hate crime protection to a professional class for the first time, critics argue, may weaken protections for those who have to endure ethnic, racial, and gender-based violence because of who they are.

“Hate crime legislation was created because certain crimes – beating someone for being openly gay or wearing a turban … – are meant to strike fear in the heart of a community,” Anna Merlan writes for Jezebel. “[But] being a law enforcement officer is a job, not a fixed, immutable identity like race, gender or sexual orientation: the things at the center of actual hate crimes.”

Yet there’s also a perception among many Americans that police are sometimes targeted simply for being a police officer – which has happened several times since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., two years ago. While there is little data yet to support the argument that police are facing a greater risk of hate crimes, the bill in Louisiana expands the definition of a hate crime by including violence against police, firefighters, or emergency medical responders, predicated on the simple hatred of them.

"In the news, you see a lot of people terrorizing and threatening police officers on social media just due to the fact that they are policemen,” La. State Rep. Lance Harris, who wrote the bill in response to the ambush shooting of Texas Sheriff Deputy Darren Goforth last year, told CNN. “Now, this (new law) protects police and first-responders under the hate-crime law."

The Black Lives Matter movement began to take shape in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012, and exploded as a street and campus movement after the shooting death of Mr. Brown.

A litany of other shootings and killings by police have fomented a deeper sense that at least some corners of American policing is ethically and racially corrupt, sparking federal introspection as high as up as the White House. Meanwhile, a string of campus incidents suggest, according to Black Lives Matter activists, that competing narratives – such as the "Blue Lives Matter" – are merely an attempt to silence them.

“We have to stop this malicious trend before it starts — we cannot allow the gains of the civil rights movement to be squandered away by police officers scrambling to avoid criticism from their constituents,” Savannah Shange, of Black Youth Project 100 New Orleans, told the Louisiana Advocate.

The two viewpoints clashed recently at Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H. As Black Lives Matter protesters earlier this month defaced a “blue lives matter” board on campus, one activist defended the act saying, “[expletive] your comfort, there is no such thing as a neutral existence.”

At least for some activists, the conflict between whether “blue” or “black” lives matter is about whose rights reign supreme – unarmed citizens at risk of being killed by police because of who they are, or public safety officers who are forced to make split-second life or death decisions.

It’s a difficult question. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly given police officers wide legal leeway to do their jobs, in recognition that each incident unwinds by its own accord, and that officers have to make quick, life-and-death decisions that are sometimes flawed.

Yet a litany of video evidence of instances where police seemingly fail to show people basic human dignity has given the impression to some that there is a greater rot within the law enforcement community – where, to activists, they more resemble armed militia groups protecting a powerful status quo instead of acting as public servants charged with protecting and serving everyone equally.

“Given some of the egregious acts against black people by criminally aggressive officers in other jurisdictions, one can hardly cast blame if anyone – particularly a person of color – develops a skeptical attitude about how minorities are treated,” writes the editorial board of the Democrat-Gazette of Northwest Arkansas, following the disputed shooting of a black man in Fayetteville, Ark., this month.

But the editorial adds: “Fayetteville and every other community owes [police officers] enough of a benefit of the doubt – not blindness, but room to do the job they’re asked to do – so that they don’t have to risk their lives without the capacity to defend themselves.”

The depth of frustration driving Black Lives Matter activists runs deep, and the emergence of a “blue lives matter” movement has only fanned the flames. To them, a “blue lives matter” movement is simply proof that America’s powerful majority groups see attempts to reform policing as baseless.

“Our goal is to illuminate the severity of the violence people of color face,” activists at Dartmouth wrote in response to the “blue lives matter” display. “In not challenging this oppression against our bodies, instead reproducing this narrative, is actively partaking in this violence” against black people.

Yet at Dartmouth, students who wanted to provide a counterpoint say they did so not out of malice, but out of appreciation for the policing profession, especially given that two New Hampshire police officers had been injured in a shooting just days before.

“We do not see the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements as mutually exclusive,” the campus Republican group wrote. “It is possible to recognize the service and contributions of law enforcement officers while simultaneously pushing for reform to correct the grave mistakes of the small minority of officers.”

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