After Gavin Long’s attack on officers in Baton Rouge, Police Chief Carl Dabadie observed that police “are up against a force that is not playing by the rules.” I understand and share his anguish for the loss of life, but I could not help being struck by his choice of words. To what force was he alluding? On Meet the Press following the Dallas killings, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani laid the blame squarely at the feet of Black Lives Matter. On CNN Tuesday morning, Wisconsin representative and former reality-TV star Sean Duffy went a step further and suggested greater scrutiny of the Black Lives Matter movement, which he argued is a prime instigator of violence against police.
All of this rhetoric is part of a rising chorus after the Texas and Louisiana killings, an effort to define a new category in the war on extremism—so-called black-nationalist terrorism. Proponents struggle to manufacture a domestic equivalent for Al Qaeda. Efforts to link the violence against law enforcement to some mythical, larger black separatist movement, which has made retaliatory violence against police one of its chief aims, is weak at best and irresponsible at worst.
The Republican National Convention nonetheless built much of its opening night on Monday around this idea, with its theme of “Make America Safe Again.” Giuliani implied that the Black Lives Matter movement has “targeted” police and put a target on their backs.” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke was offered as a black law-enforcement spokesperson supporting the notion that the movement represents dangerous extremism.
To be clear: The black lives movement unapologetically focuses on the dignity and worth of black lives. The careless and dishonest way Duffy, Giuliani, Clarke and others chose to frame that movement creates a context that shifts attention away from the very police practices that nonviolent protesters are demonstrating against. More significantly, the possibility of legislators addressing the actions of two mass murders by doubling down on nonviolent protesters may exacerbate an already tense situation, put into place more oppressive polices and procedures, and inflame police-community relations.
At the height of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation utilized a highly secret and illegal counterintelligence program to wage war on nonviolent and militant black organizations alike. In the words of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, it aimed “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters.” A dirty tricks campaign targeted nonviolent stalwarts like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the wake of Dallas and Baton Rouge, lawmakers might act to apply the broad language in Section 802 of the Patriot Act that covers “domestic” terrorism to tamp down on peaceful protesters. That section finds a person engages in domestic terrorism if the act “appear[s] to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” Though (iii) is fairly straightforward, there is enough space, in (i) and (ii) to justify all types of incursions on civil liberties rooted in the name of battling terrorism.