A growing backlash is emerging against activists who have protested the killings of African-Americans by police officers and called for major reforms in law enforcement.
Conservatives, including two Republican presidential candidates, and some police departments in more liberal cities have cast the activist movement as anti-police, even as the protesters, who have organized under the mantra “Black Lives Matter,” emphasize they simply want to improve how police interact with everyday citizens.
There is no evidence that the nationally-publicized shootings of police officers in Texas and Illinois over the last week were motivated by the activist movement.
But conservatives say that the BLM activists are reducing the morale of police. And Republicans are using the deaths of these police officers to criticize President Obama and his administration, which has at times aligned with the protesters in pushing for police reform.
"I think the violence we're seeing directed at law enforcement is a direct manifestation of the harsh rhetoric and the vilification of police officers, of law enforcement that sadly has come all the way from the top," Cruz said in an interview with a Houston television station this week. "Over and over again, President Obama and the Department of Justice and senior administration officials have chosen to vilify law enforcement."
Walker, in an op-ed published on the conservative site Hot Air, wrote, “In the last six years under President Obama, we’ve seen a rise in anti-police rhetoric.”
According to the New York Times, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a potential GOP vice-presidential candidate, said at a luncheon this week, “Black lives do matter, and they have been disgracefully jeopardized by the movement that has laid waste to Ferguson and Baltimore.”
Sheriff Ron Hickman of Harris County, Texas, a county that Obama won narrowly in 2012, launched a blunt attack on the BLM movement after one of the officers under Hickman’s command, Darren Goforth, was shot and killed at a gas station last week.
“We've heard black lives matter, all lives matter. Well, cops' lives matter, too, so why don't we just drop the qualifiers and just say lives matter and take that to the bank," said Hickman, who is a Republican.
Obama, in a statement on Monday, said he had called Goforth’s family.
“I offered Mrs. Goforth my condolences, and told her that Michelle and I would keep her and her family in our prayers. I also promised that I would continue to highlight the uncommon bravery that police officers show in our communities every single day. They put their lives on the line for our safety. Targeting police officers is completely unacceptable - an affront to civilized society,” Obama said.
That Cruz, Haley, and Walker criticized Obama and the police activists was not surprising. The president is deeply unpopular among Republicans, and few African-Americans vote in the GOP primaries.
But the Black Lives Matter movement and the resulting focus on police conduct has created a divide that is not just along traditional partisan lines. Police chiefs in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, overwhelmingly Democratic cities, have found themselves caught between officers who feel they are being stigmatized and activists who say police unfairly discriminate against African-Americans.
The Democratic National Committee, at a meeting last week, passed a resolution that read in part, “the DNC joins with Americans across the country in affirming ‘Black lives matter.”
In response, the official Black Lives Matter group, which has 26 chapters across the country, distanced itself from the DNC.
“We do not now, nor have we ever, endorsed or affiliated with the Democratic Party, or with any party. The Democratic Party, like the Republican and all political parties, have historically attempted to control or contain Black people’s efforts to liberate ourselves. True change requires real struggle, and that struggle will be in the streets and led by the people, not by a political party,” the group said in a Facebook post.
While these divides among liberals do exist about Black Lives Matter, the deeper fissure is partisan and ideological.
Many on the right object to not only the focus on police conduct, but even the name of the movement. In their view, saying black lives matter implies people of other races don’t face challenges.
The activists note correctly that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately killed by police.
The solution, according to the activists, is to focus as much as possible on policing and race. Black Lives Matter recently launched “Project Zero,” a policy agenda they are pushing for the 2016 candidates to adopt. Some of the ideas, like expanded use of police body cameras, have been backed by Republicans like Haley.
But Campaign Zero’s policy memo includes clauses like the need to “prevent police from intervening in civilian lives for no reason other than the ‘suspicion’ of their blackness.”
Many conservatives disagree with that sort of framing of the issue, with invocations of race and a focus on police tactics.
“We need to change the tone in America from chants and rallies that fixate on racial division and instead follow the example of the families of the victims of the Charleston shooting, who showed us the best path forward is through unity,” Walker wrote in his op-ed.