Vice President Mike Pence found himself in some hot water this week when he refused to say the words, “Black Lives Matter” (BLM). At first glance, it is difficult to understand why anyone would have any reason not to say three words that are so obviously right and true. But in fact, the situation is more complicated and that is because the term has two very distinct, if not contradictory meanings in today’s America. One is a general statement of support for civil rights; the other is a loose Marxist organization with a clear radical agenda.
BLM began as the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in 2013 in wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. That earliest iteration of the term was the general statement of support. But very quickly BLM became the umbrella name for a network of loosely affiliated activist groups with a very far left set of objectives. In fact one of the founders has said on video that the organization was founded by “trained Marxists.”
Like other left-wing activist groups such as Anonymous, and Antifa, Black Lives Matter, the organization, is very decentralized and therefore hard to pin down. This is by design. One product of this decentralization is that it is very hard to know exactly what BLM wants.
Sometimes it is defund the police, sometimes it is demilitarize the police, sometimes it is end capitalism and sometimes it is greater capital investment in black communities. This week Shaun King, an activist journalist associated with BLM suggested that statues depicting Jesus as white should be taken down. It really runs the gamut and with no strict leadership one cannot say they support the organization Black Lives Matter without also supporting some rather off-the-wall stuff, hence Pence’s demurring.
But then there is the other meaning of Black Lives Matter, or perhaps it is the lower case black lives matter. This is a sentiment no sane person can object to. And whether ones believes that the disproportionate amount of police interactions that black Americans have is a result of systemic racism, or horrible government management of black communities, or a combination, we should all be able to admit the disproportionate interactions lead to more police violence and that is an important and legitimate problem.
The general statement “black lives matter” can be used to described approaches to create greater equality for black Americans from both the left and the right, the organization, “Black Lives Matters” demonstrably cannot. This creates a problem with no easy solution.
A new phrase could be chosen for the general statement of support, leaving BLM’s sole definition as the organization. Also, the organization could become more centralized and offer more moderate leadership and policy proposals that majorities of Americans can get behind. The latter seems unlikely though. As we have seen across the country, but especially at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Occupied Zone, that even compared to 10 years ago at Occupy Wall Street, today’s protest leaders have very little ability to control the mobs.
The only option that really leaves is for people to understand the complicated duality that exists within the term. A good answer from Pence would have been, “Of course I support the truth that black lives matter, but I do not support Marxists organizations with that name who I firmly believe will set back the cause of equal and robust opportunity for all Americans.”
Over the past few weeks of protest, violence, and debate over racism in the United States what has been missing has been a shared set of definitions that we can use to talk about the problems and arrive at policy fixes. It’s not just the term BLM, “defund the police,” has also come to take on two meanings, one meaning reform, the other abolition.
Even the term racism itself has no agreed upon meaning. On the left it is a systemic problem imbued in every aspect of life. On the right it is a belief or action of intentional bigotry. This is a rare case where people in a single country and a single society are developing two separate languages incapable of meaningful communication between each other. Until that changes, it is hard to imagine meaningful progress occurring. And unfortunately our confused tongues still seem very far from the shared language we need.