Civil Rights Health & Social Policy Politics and Governance

Don’t Blame the Black Lives Matter Movement for the Harris County Shooting

On August 28, Darren Goforth – a Texas Sheriff’s Deputy – was killed in an act of unprovoked violence. Goforth had stopped at a gas station to refuel his squad car after responding to an unrelated accident in Harris County. He was in uniform, effectively minding his own business while on active duty, when he was shot fifteen times from behind. Goforth was pronounced dead on the scene and the suspect, Shannon Miles, an African American male, was arrested shortly after. Miles has since been charged with capital murder.

Though Miles’ motive remains unclear, one popular narrative is that he acted with the specific intent to harm an officer of the law in the wake of heightened racial tensions between African Americans and the police. Following the deaths of Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose, and Eric Garner, among others, it is an uncontroversial statement to say that such tension exists, and, by extension, that Miles could have been sufficiently motivated to lash out against an individual that he may have seen as an oppressor. Though such a narrative remains unsubstantiated, it has become a sticking point for some.

But motives aside, Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman’s statements in a press conference following the violence have only added poignancy to this tragedy. “We’ve heard black lives matter, all lives matter… well, cops’ lives matter, too,” said Hickman, “[s]o why don’t we just drop the qualifier and just say ‘lives matter.'” These statements and the argument they represent fundamentally miss the point of the Black Lives Matter movement. Worse, they diminish it.

As a society, we never questioned whether a police officer’s life mattered. We never took for granted that the death of a white public servant was a tragedy. Just look at how the State has reacted: Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered on Monday that Texas flags in Harris County be lowered to half-mast, mourning Goforth with public ceremony. The narrative surrounding the officer’s death is one of universal condemnation. Rather than questioning the story, looking for qualifiers, or claiming that we should withhold judgment before we know more facts, the response is straightforward and uncontroversial: Deputy Goforth is a victim of brutal violence that should never have happened and, as such, he is a hero who fell in the line of duty.

This is what is so crucial about the Black Lives Matter movement: it exists precisely because that reaction – both by the state and the public generally – is missing when African Americans are killed by those who are supposed to protect them. It reminds us that African Americans, who are disproportionately victims of police violence, should not be forgotten when they are unfairly brutalized. The message of the movement is legitimate, in part because it calls out the centuries-long victimization of African Americans, including the continued effects of government-sponsored segregation*, to a society that often willfully ignores these facts. An “All Lives Matter” slogan, however, diminishes the Black Lives Matter movement because it attempts to de-emphasize the unique problems facing African Americans, fitting violence committed against them into the same mold as violence that is less often committed against others. As such, Black Lives Matter deserves to stand out, qualifiers included. Fringe actors who do not represent a peaceful ideology of social change should not lessen the force of that narrative.

Some have also claimed that heightened anti-police rhetoric in the wake of Black Lives Matter has resulted in a “war on cops”. In fact, however, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, shooting-related fatalities of police officers decreased by 16% (to 26 total) this year compared to the same January 1 to September 3 period last year. Police officer fatalities are up overall so far this year, but a 36% increase in traffic-related fatalities over last year has far more bearing on such an increase than anti-police rhetoric. And historical context provides yet more levity to the discussion: in the 1970s, the average number of police officers killed by firearms in the first six months of the year was 62 – well below today’s trends.

There is yet another unfortunate dimension to Sheriff Hickman’s words, whether or not he meant them as such. Insinuating that inflamed anti-police rhetoric killed Deputy Goforth is irresponsible, but status quo practice for a society that constantly obfuscates issues of gun violence. Such a disingenuous strategy misapplies blame that properly belongs to our country’s wider problem with gun violence. The onus should be on explaining why someone with a history of mental illness and a criminal record – including resisting arrest, trespassing, and disorderly conduct with a firearm – had access to a gun, rather than politicizing an officer’s death to de-legitimize a movement with an important message.

All this is not to say that a hypothetical “All Lives Matter” movement may not be uncalled for – as long as it remained separate from its legitimate predecessor of the same namesake. I imagine, however, that if there were such a movement, it would look considerably different from Sheriff Hickman’s message that we should “just say ‘lives matter’”. For example, wouldn’t it make sense if the people making such grandiose claims about life also focused their efforts toward ending the public health epidemic of gun violence? Perhaps a specific policy point they could promote would be ending the ban currently in place that prevents the CDC from studying gun violence. Another item on the agenda could be implementing universal background checks for all firearm purchases, a policy intervention supported by 92% of gun owners. In any case, if the message is that life matters, an endless acceptance of more than 30,000 homicides, suicides, and fatal accidents caused by guns each year doesn’t seem to fit the banner.

We are right to mourn the loss of a public servant and, to be sure, wanton violence committed against anyone is deplorable. But for most Americans, it goes without saying that law enforcement lives matter. The people espousing the “All Lives Matter” narrative, however, are ignorant – willfully or not – of the fact that our society can’t yet say the same for black lives. And their simultaneous lack of focus on responsible measures for preventing gun violence is highly ironic given their slogan. Until this changes, the words of Sheriff Hickman and his supporters will continue to ring hollow.

*I am indebted to Will Flage for this insight

Edited by Sam Naik

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