There are 8,049 miles between the Waikato and Minnesota. That’s 12,954 kilometers for those of us on this side of that divide. But that distance has felt vanishingly small this last week as many of us have watched in horror at the events unfolding there and across the wider Divided States of America. Some have grown angry at the violence of the riots. Some of us have angered at the violence of the police officer who sparked this latest round of civil unrest. Those who have been paying close enough attention for long enough understand the grim reality that is playing out on the ground. They may not necessarily condone it, but they can understand it.
In 2016 when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence, Trump called him a traitor. It ruined Kaepernick’s football career. Many other people of colour in the public eye have made similar attempts to speak out. They have been blasted by the President, social commentators and the media. When this kind of non-violent protest is routinely excoriated it raises questions about the effectiveness of this approach. Take away someone’s voice and they will use their fists. It is hard to blame them for that.
In the current environment there are those who point to the example of Martin Luther King Jr and his non-violent protests. These attempts ignore the fact that violent retribution by the state often resulted. Look to Selma, as an example, where Alabama State Troopers attacked the Civil Rights demonstrators in what has come to be known as Bloody Sunday. I, myself, am descended from the line of Te Whiti O Rongomai whose peaceful protests here in New Zealand ended with the sacking of Parihaka Pa, the arrests of the men, the rape of the women and the confiscation of vast amounts of land. I have grown up on that legacy but even I am struggling today to reconcile the valiant act of peaceful resistance with what we are witnessing now. A question keeps rearing its head, how does a man choose peace when his neighbour chooses war?
And it is little less than war. Police, armed by the military, are using military tactics on protesters, both peaceful and otherwise. The President is not only publicly endorsing this but threatening the deployment of the actual military on domestic soil to quell the unrest by force. This is the behaviour of a dictator, not a civil servant. A leader has a duty to protect those they lead, not crush dissenting voices beneath the boots of the most powerful army in human history. Especially when those voices have the moral high ground.
Others still are trying to point out that all lives matter. It’s true. Of course. The sky is blue. The sun sets in the West. These things are not really in question. We can more or less accept these as facts and move on. We can see it in how people behave. Most of us can walk around our cities, going about our lives and not have to worry if we are in imminent danger of a passing police office casually murdering us with his hands in his pockets. We can do this because we generally accept that all lives matter. If that wasn’t true, if we did have to fear the passing by of the police that our lives might be in imminent danger we might ask ourselves, does our life matter? Do all lives actually matter?
Put yourself in the shoes of George Floyd. Or Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or Philando Castile. All murdered by police officers as they went about their days. Their communities, looking at all this happening, are asking themselves that very question. If their lives really mattered, surely they could take it for granted that they could go about their lives without fear of the police? But that is not the reality they inhabit. The evidence is not there that this is true. People of colour are still routinely being killed by the State. It is a open question whether the society they live in actually values black lives. So they stand up and say “Black Lives Matter” to wake up their society to the difference of their experience. It is hard to blame for that.
Those that say “All Lives Matter” are muddying the waters of a very real, very bloody struggle. To those that say “Blue Lives Matter”, of course they do. Being a police officer can be a dangerous job, they know that when they sign up and ultimately they have a choice. At the end of the day, they can take off their uniform. Nobody can escape the colour of their skin. The violence that has erupted across the US is not difficult to understand if we take the time to understand it. As the BLM movement itself has expressed there will be no peace until there is justice. There will be no justice until our societies value their minority populations. Until we see from their perspective. That is as true here as it is there. We would do well to remember that.