Black Lives Matter activists face familiar anxiety in aftermath of Dallas shooting

Organizers stand firm amid questions over movement’s future, calling for continued peaceful protest as some suggest efforts are fuelling violence

When five officers were shot dead in Dallas and police had few details about who was responsible, a movement held its breath. Protesters and activists across the country couldn’t help but wonder about the shooter’s identity – and what it would mean for the future of Black Lives Matter.

The anxieties mounted alongside a much more palpable horror, as Dallas police closed in on a man who strategically sowed chaos at a peaceful rally and wounded seven other officers and two civilians.

It was a type of angst familiar to many people of color, and perhaps best encapsulated in a tweet by the writer Ijeoma Oluo: “We are all awake, waiting for news, because we know: if the shooter is white, he pays. If the shooter is black, our entire movement pays.”

When Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old black veteran, was identified as the killer, that swelling sense of dread was realized. And when it was revealed by authorities that Johnson had told police he was “upset about Black Lives Matter” and “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers”, those fears grew. Johnson’s statements ensured that the shooting would reignite arguments over what the Black Lives Matter movement represents: a plea for police to respect the rights of the country’s black citizens and be held accountable, or an incitement to crime and violence – in the words of a New York tabloid: “civil war”.

For the movement’s broad range of leaders, that answer is clear. After a week in which high-profile police killings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis re-energized protesters and turned widespread national attention on police violence, virtually all were eager to reject the actions of the Dallas shooter and direct the narrative back towards the movement.

“We cannot bring about justice through violence,” said the Rev Dr Jeff Hood, one of the organizers of the protest in Dallas. “Our work from here on out will be what it has always been: teaching people to love each other and pursue justice.”

However, since it emerged as a loud national voice in the wake of the Ferguson protests in 2014, Black Lives Matter as both an organization and an ideology has routinely been accused of fostering and harboring anti-police views and inviting violence against officers. Late Thursday, long before anything was known about the killer or his motivations, the former congressman Joe Walsh became the latest emblem of this attitude, tweeting “This is now war” and “Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”

A woman visits a makeshift memorial in front of the Dallas police department on Saturday.
A woman visits a makeshift memorial in front of the Dallas police department on Saturday. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

The tweet has since been deleted and Walsh said he didn’t mean to threaten violence, but he reiterated his feeling that “BLM’s deeds have gotten cops killed”.

The BLM organization responded to these critiques head-on, calling the attack “the result of the actions of a lone gunman” and calling it “dangerous and irresponsible” to “assign the actions of one person to an entire movement”.

The data, too, finds the accusations by Walsh and others lacking in substance. According to FBI figures, there has been no demonstrable rise in “ambush”-style attacks on police officers since the emergence of BLM and the new wave of activism pointed at police brutality. The numbers may change, though, given nonfatal shootings at officers this week on a Tennessee highway, in Ballwin, Missouri, and in Valdosta, Georgia.

“How many more ambushes, how many more dead officers must we endure before action is taken?” asked the National Fraternal Order of Police president, Chuck Canterbury.

Until now, a few isolated incidents, such as the murders of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in December 2014, have fuelled the accusations that BLM-inspired anger at police is driving a “war on cops”. The officers, sitting in their patrol car, were shot without warning by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who had made a string of anti-police postings on social media in the hours before the attack, including a claim that he was “putting wings on pigs today”, alongside a picture of a handgun.

Another incident that drew these types of criticisms was the killing of the Houston County sheriff’s deputy Darren Goforth in August 2015 by Shannon Miles, a black man “whose only apparent motive was that Darren wore the uniform of a law enforcement officer”, according to the sheriff’s department. Miles was found incompetent to stand trial due to mental illness in February.

The shooting death of the Fox Lake, Illinois, officer Joe Gliniewicz, just weeks after Goforth’s shooting, was also initially tied by some to BLM and anti-police rhetoric. Investigators there later concluded it was actually a carefully staged suicide.

Neither Miles or Brinsley had any affiliation with or membership of local BLM organizations, or any demonstrated history of attending protests, but the diffuse nature of BLM makes it challenging to define who is and who is not part of it.

As it has developed in the last two years, Black Lives Matter has become more than the sum of its dozens of chapters in cities nationwide. The phrase serves as a rallying cry and statement of solidarity, and it occupies an enormous role in the national conversation about policing and systemic racism. It represents a movement – and inside and outside that movement, it often means different things to different people.

Authorities are still investigating Johnson’s motives, and what he meant when he invoked Black Lives Matter. But what is clear is that in the aftermath of Dallas, leaders in the movement remain committed to nonviolence and to marching in the streets to be heard.

“There were dozens of protests around the country yesterday; all of them happened without incident except one,” said Brittany Packnett, a protester who joined the re-energized BLM group this week in Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling was shot dead by officers. “So the question is, is America going to pay attention to how the movement is represented broadly, or the choice of one single person?”

Packnett, one of the founders of We the Protesters and a visible member of the BLM movement since the unrest in Ferguson, added that her priority remained nonviolent protest. “I am concerned with continuing to do as we’ve always done, and pursue peaceful civil disobedience and systemic change.”

As for concerns that the Black Lives Matter “brand” could be poisoned by bad publicity, Washington DC-based member Lauren Allen is not concerned. “Black Lives Matter, the simplest affirmation out there,” she said. “Anyone against affirming that Black Lives Matter simply thinks they don’t. The events in Dallas don’t change that.

In Minneapolis, where the shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop, only a day after Sterling’s death, magnified the outrage, activists pledged not to be dissuaded.

Curtis Avent said he had stayed at a protest over the killing of Castile for more than 24 hours and had no plans to let up over the shootings in Dallas.

“I stayed here. I’m going to stay here,” he said, before speaking of Dallas. “It didn’t scare me. I’m not going to let it.”

The 38-year-old said he planned to stay outside the governor’s residence through Sunday. Despite the chaotic circumstances surrounding the shooting spree in Dallas, Avent said local activists should continue to demonstrate.

“I think that activists, if you’re truly an activist, you will activate, and you will be there, regardless of the fear,” he said. “We’re here because people are being murdered. So if you’re in fear of being murdered, don’t come out here. We’re here against murder, against people being slaughtered for no reason, illegally.

“So if you’re afraid of that happening to you, this is probably not the place for you at nighttime, because [the police] can do that,” he said. “Will they do that? They have done that, in broad daylight.”

Law enforcement officers should also be asked whether the Dallas shootings will alter the way they patrol, Avent said.

“Are you going to be police, are you going to serve and protect?” he said. “Or are you going to enact vigilante justice in other states because of something that happened in another state?”


Jamiles Lartey in New York and Ryan Felton in Minneapolis

The GuardianTramp

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