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Criminalizing black protest — and black people

Lee A. Daniels

Is #BlackLivesMatter a criminal organization that advocates attacks on and murder of white police officers?

That’s the snake-oil pitch the conservative echo chamber is making these days — even as news accounts every week bring new proof that neither black law-abiding citizens nor, frankly, black criminals, nor anyone else are preying upon the police. Washington Post columnist, Radley Balko’s September 10 column offers a must-read examination of the data which shows that assaults on and murders of police officers have fallen to dramatic lows in recent years, and there’s no indication they’re about to increase. The so-called war on cops, Balko emphasizes, “just isn’t true.”

Instead, what continues to be true is that a significant number of individual cops and prison guards continually seek the slightest excuse — or no excuse at all — to brutalize blacks and other people of color.

Look at the video released last week by the Fairfax County (Va.) sheriff’s office of five officers wearing biohazard suits, gas masks and rubber gloves taking Natasha McKenna, a 5’4’’ mentally unstable black woman, from her cell — apparently completely nude — last February and shooting her with a stun gun four times while she lay face down on the floor outside her cell. She died days later.

Read the September 10 New York Times account of the death in April of a black mentally ill inmate at New York’s Fishkill state prison, Samuel Harrell, allegedly at the hands of a so-called “Beat Up Squad” of prison guards, and their subsequent efforts to intimidate inmates who witnessed the killing into silence.

Watch the video of a bully-boy New York City undercover cop jumping retired black tennis star James Blake in a Manhattan hotel lobby September 10, and read of this dirty cop’s record of assaulting innocent people.

These three terrifying examples only suggest the reality so many black and Hispanic Americans face from the front-line “troops” of America’s criminal justice system. But they are enough to show up the “criminalization gambit” as just another rotting plank of the structure of American racism.

Criminalizing Americans of color, especially black Americans, has long been a constant of American society. Racists have often tried to diminish black protest movements, and black achievement itself, by characterizing them that way — be it the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement, the post-Civil War achievements blacks forged during the Reconstruction Era, or the mid-twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement.

Today, the striking success of blacks in marshaling their voting power has provoked the Republican Party’s national campaign to block blacks’ access to the ballot under the smokescreen of preventing voter fraud. And conservatives have constantly attacked President Obama himself as “lawless.”

That framework helps illuminate three specific reasons conservatives are pushing the criminalization gambit against #BlackLivesMatter now.

One is their fear of its success in giving blacks and many progressive-leaning whites a means of direct-action protest against the many injustices of the criminal justice system that, thanks to videos, e-mail, tweets and text messages, have become more and more visible to more and more people. Further, #BlackLivesMatter has added a compelling, straight-from-the-streets energy and urgency to the high-level efforts of Obama administration and elected officials and public-policy scholars to reform the criminal justice system.

Another reason for the conservative movement’s attack against today’s black protest movement stems from its own abject failure in several of the “theaters” of the war it’s been waging against the Obama administration and American democracy.

Its miserable record of failure — from not defeating Obama electorally, to not blocking Obamacare either in the Congress or the courts, to neither halting nor slowing the expansion of rights for gay and lesbian Americans, to its humiliating inability to undermine the landmark Iran nuclear treaty forged by Obama and the leaders of six European nations — underscores why chaos continues to rule the Republicans’ presidential sweepstakes process.

In other words, two of the pillars of the anti-#BlackLivesMatter campaign suggest the third desperate motive for it, and exemplify what conservatives often do when they find themselves stuck in a political quagmire: They play the dirty game of “blame the black people.”

Lee A. Daniels’ collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at