The Conservative Record of Criminalizing Black Social Movements

In the wake of the murder of a Harris County, Texas, police deputy, conservative pundits on Fox News have faulted the Black Lives Matter movement for the killing. A guest on the Fox talk show “The Five” on Monday called the movement a “criminal organization,” and Bill O’Reilly called it a “hate group.” Harris County law enforcement officials have yet to determine a motive for the shooting, and the suspect Shanon Miles had been found “mentally incompetent” to stand trial in 2012. But that hasn’t stopped Fox News from hand-picking, of the many clips of the hundreds if not thousands of Black Lives Matter protests that have taken place over the past year, a recent clip of protesters at the Minnesota State Fair chanting “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon,” as pundits discussed the Texas killing.

Conservatives drew the same unfounded connection between the Black Lives Matter movement and the assassination of two NYPD officers in Brooklyn last December by another Black man who also had a history of mental health issues and was suicidal, though his social media posts made it clear he held a grudge against police as well.

But this isn’t a new tactic from the Right. Conservatives have long attempted to discredit Black social movements and generate opposition towards them by casting them as criminal. In fact, the “law and order” rhetoric espoused by conservatives since the Civil Rights Movement was invented to do just that.

In the 1950s, southern conservative lawmakers and law enforcement officials argued that acts of civil disobedience by black civil rights activists violated the law, were crimes, and that the Civil Rights Movement was indicative of a breakdown in “law and order.” They criticized support for civil rights legislation as rewarding lawbreakers and chided federal courts that struck down Jim Crow laws as being lenient on crime.

“Law and order” rhetoric went mainstream in the late 1960s following the major civil rights victories of the decade. Richard Nixon and avowed-segregationist George Wallace both ran on “law and order” platforms in the 1968 presidential election. In his speeches and political ads, Nixon appealed to the “non-shouters and non-demonstrators” who were “not racist” and “not guilty of the crime that plagues the land,” a thinly veiled reference to the race riots of the decade. He blamed the courts for “going too far in weakening the peace forces against the criminal forces.” He used this coded language to appeal to racist voters at a time when overt racism was becoming less socially acceptable.

Conservative politicians, pundits, and voters continued using this language to rail against the Black Power movement in the 1970s and tie organizations like the Black Panther Party to neighborhood crime and increased drug use. They pointed to the ongoing race riots and the increase in urban crime that accompanied the migration of black Southerners to Northern cities during that period, as evidence that the Panthers’ philosophy of armed self-defense was contributing to violence and criminal activity. Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971, prior to the explosion of the drug trade mid-decade, in a tough-on-crime move that functioned as a crackdown on the black people and communities that were supposedly “causing” crime, and the philosophy of racial equality that had contributed to it. (And similarly coded language was used to justify criminal-justice policies that targeted black communities and produced the nation’s mass incarceration crisis in the late 1980s and 1990s.)

Now conservatives seek to characterize the Black Lives Matter movement in the same way. Despite the fact that the movement is one calling for an end to violence, or that the movement’s national voices have condemned violence against police on numerous occasions, the Right insists that the movement is to blame for murders of police officers. Despite the fact that the number of non-violent protests dwarfs the number of protests that have seen looting and property destruction, conservatives insist that Black Lives Matter protesters are “thugs” and that the movement’s rhetoric encourages violence. Just as they sought to discredit the movement to upset the Jim Crow social order, conservatives now seek to discredit the movement to upend the current system of racist policing.

Murders of police officers aren’t the Black Lives Matter movement’s fault. But count on anti-progress conservatives to tell you why they are.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco. His writing and commentary have been featured on NPR, Huffington Post Live, NBCBLK, and Politic365. He is a recent graduate of Howard University.

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