Since the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Trayvon Martin in Florida, and countless others, “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying call for a group of Americans unfairly targeted by police. Taking the message from protests to politicians, the movement has mounted pressure on 2016 presidential candidates to recognize the need for policies to address the disproportionate risk black Americans face of death in the hands of police.
But not all candidates are receptive to that message. On Friday, Ben Carson, the only African American candidate from either party vying for the presidency, spoke at a conference organized by black conservative group Freedom’s Journal Institute (FJI) and titled “In Defense of Life: Why All Lives Matter.”
Candidates on both the left and right have been criticized for their declaration of those words — “All Lives Matter” — diminishing the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is asking people to recognize that black lives are devalued by our criminal justice system. Ben Carson, however, told ThinkProgress this week he sees the whole movement as divisive.
“We need to talk about what the real issues are and not get caught up in silliness like this matters or that matters,” he said at a rally to defund Planned Parenthood Tuesday outside the U.S. Capitol, where protesters held signs reading “Unborn Lives Matter.”
“Of course all lives matter. I don’t want to get into it, it’s so silly,” he continued, laughing to himself. “Black lives are part of all lives, right? When we’re talking about a culture of life, then we ought to be talking about a culture of life and not allow ourselves to get caught up in all the divisive rhetoric and terminology and political correctness. It’s the reason we can’t make any progress as a society.”
Dante Barry, executive director of racial justice group Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, told ThinkProgress that Carson’s rhetoric, and that of many other politicians, is problematic.
“All Lives Matter is an erasure of black lives and it suggests that black communities cannot feel that they are validated or valued or that they matter,” he said. “Realistically, when black lives matter, all lives will matter.”
Friday’s summit organized by FJI and the World Congress for Families, a far-right group that has pushed anti-LGBT laws around the world, will focus on the organizations’ opposition to abortion, using “All Lives Matter” as a unifying theme. Both Carson and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee are scheduled to speak.
“Current events have called into question (by some) whether Black lives matter,” FJI’s founder Eric Wallace said in a statement announcing the conference. “Does Black Life really matter? That is not a new question, Black pro-life groups and others have been asking this question ever since Roe vs Wade. But, where are the cries for the thousands of Black babies killed every day?”
FJI isn’t the first group to coopt Black Lives Matter’s messaging. The anti-choice movement has declared that “unborn lives matter” while others have decried that “Confederate lives matter,” “blue lives matter,” or even “white lives matter.”
Carson’s position as the only African American in the presidential race could have offered him a unique opportunity to connect with the movement and black voters. Instead, he is joining the masses of Republicans pitting themselves against the demographic.
Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of activist group WeTheProtesters, told ThinkProgress that Carson shouldn’t be singled out, but rather reflects the greater problem within the Republican Party of politicians being unable to recognize racial inequalities in policing.
“Really we haven’t seen any Republican candidates, other than maybe Rand Paul on some occasions, come out and say Black Lives Matter or even propose anything to respond to the endless police killings that we’re seeing and police violence in communities,” he said. “I don’t think [Carson’s] different from any of the candidates on his side in terms of his perspective, in terms of his constraints, in terms of his party. This is an issue that is endemic to the Republican Party and I wouldn’t call out Ben Carson in particular just because he’s black.”
Barry agreed, adding that black people can perpetuate white supremacy. “Black people are not a monolith,” he said. “His comments disregard the factor that black people didn’t create the division, the state did.”
In response to Carson calling the movement “divisive,” Sinyangwe said he and other presidential candidates should reevaluate what is actually dividing the country.
“What’s divisive is the fact that community concerns are not being acknowledged, let alone addressed,” he said. “What is divisive and dangerous is when candidates refuse to serve the American public and all people, including black people especially who have not been served in the past. What is also divisive is for folks who look at these videos to not acknowledge the injustice that is very plain to see, because a lot of people are rightfully outraged.”
Although data on police killings is incomplete, a 2012 FBI report found that African Americans are the only group for which an arrest carries a disproportionate risk of death in police custody. Black Americans are also more likely to be pulled over, approached or stopped by police, leading to the higher rate of violent interactions.
But instead of taking the opportunity to energize black voters and to connect with them through the movement, Republican and Democratic politicians have resisted and have been unable to simply state that “Black Lives Matter.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) recently spoke out against the pressure to say “Black Lives Matter.”
“We’re so uptight and so politically correct now that we apologize for saying lives matter?” Bush said. “Life is precious. It’s a gift from God. I frankly think that it’s one of the most important values that we have. I know that in the political context it’s a slogan, I guess.”
Support from the left isn’t guaranteed, either. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) met with Black Lives Matter activists in mid-July who told him whatever you do, don’t say “All Lives Matter.” O’Malley went on to say those exact words a few days later at the progressive Netroots Nation conference. The candidate was booed and later apologized.
Hillary Clinton similarly drew criticism for saying “All Lives Matter” in a speech outside Ferguson, Missouri last month, although she took to Facebook to clarify that “Black Lives Matter” and everyone should stand firmly behind that. On Friday, she seemed to have learned her lesson, stating at the National Urban League’s conference that “young people have taken to the streets, dignified and determined, urging us to affirm the basic fact that black lives matter.”
Activists told CNN at the Movement for Black Lives convention in Cleveland this week that they are unimpressed with the entire Democratic field. Clinton appears too conservative and Sanders doesn’t understand race, attendees said.
“Nobody got the messaging right at the beginning. They should have known better,” DeRay Mckesson, a full-time organizer in the Black Lives Matter movement, told NPR this week.
But rhetoric isn’t everything. Activists are pressuring presidential candidates to back up their generalizations with actual plans to address racial inequalities and the unequal treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system.
“It’s about more than saying Black Lives Matter,” Sinyangwe said. “It’s about candidates saying what they’re going to do to make Black Lives Matter, in terms of their policy agenda.”