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How Obama failed Black Lives Matter

Mythology of police heroism: President Barack Obama(Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

No life deserves to go unmourned. That idea lies at the heart of Black Lives Matter, which loudly proclaims that for too long, black lives have been callously destroyed and have gone unmourned by the American justice system.

Recently, though, the conversation has shifted. In the past few weeks, a number of police officers were killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and the nation has turned its attention to mourning their lives. President Barack Obama swiftly condemned the violence as “vicious, calculated and despicable”.

Of course, every loss of life is tragic. But hundreds of police officers are not being killed every year. It is not a common occurrence to kill a police officer and not be charged with a crime. There are no foreign governments issuing travel advisories to their police officers cautioning them about their interactions with citizens.

The amount of violence experienced by police officers is not comparable to that which they inflict. So when the President writes an official letter to law enforcement that glosses over all of this in an attempt to offer his “full-throated support” for them, he continues the mythologising of police heroism that protects them from prosecution and reform.

When Obama says, “When you see civilians at risk, you don’t see them as strangers”, I wonder if he is referring to Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd or Aiyana Stanley-Jones. When he tells these police officers, “You see them as your own family, and you lay your life on the line for them”, I’m curious if that family includes the 13 women sexually assaulted by Daniel Holtzclaw in Oklahoma City, and the thousands more who are afraid to report.

“You put others’ safety before your own, you remind us that loving our country means loving one another,” Obama writes, as if he has not seen the video that Diamond Reynolds captured in the aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castile, with Reynolds’s four-year-old daughter in the back seat. Did that officer consider their safety? “Even when some protest against you, you protect them”, and images of Ferguson come to mind, where tanks, rubber bullets, and teargas were deployed to subdue a population.

“What is more patriotic?” Obama asks. It is, indeed, the height of patriotism to protect the American way of violent subjugation of marginalised and oppressed communities. But that is not what we are saying to police officers.

We continue thanking them for their service, for offering us protection, although nearly every day we are presented evidence to the contrary. Somehow in our minds we are able to write off this behaviour as that of a few bad apples, separating them out from the institution that offers them the authority and impunity to harass and kill at will.

Of course, Obama has acknowledged the legitimacy of the concerns raised by Black Lives Matter. In other forums, he has acknowledged that “the African-American community is not just making this up ... It’s not something that’s just being politicised. It’s real. We as a society, particularly given our history, have to take this seriously”.

But it is not enough. These instances of violence are not aberrations; they are the point of policing. Since the days of slave patrols and urban labour uprisings, we have employed police to violently reinforce American hierarchies. If we cannot be honest with police about the nature of their job, then any efforts towards reform are useless.

One thing in Obama’s letter that I agree with is when he writes, “We again recognise that we can no longer ask you to solve issues we refuse to address as a society.”

We have not, however, acted on this impulse. Through policy, we continue to foment social decay and then send the police out to fix the mess. It is a job they are not equipped for, yet we believe that police and prison will solve issues of poverty, homelessness and untreated mental illness. And when you do attempt to address one of those issues without police interference, you may still be subject to police violence.

Charles Kinsey, a behavioural therapist, was shot by North Miami police on Monday while attempting to bring one of his patients with autism back to his assisted-living facility.

Kinsey was lying on the ground with his hands up when the officer fired three shots at him, one of them hitting Kinsey in the leg. When he asked the officer why he shot him, Kinsey says, the officer responded, “I don’t know.”

Obama’s letter to law enforcement reads: “Time and again, you make the split-second decisions that could mean life or death for you and many others in harm’s way.” Why is it that those split-second decisions so often leave black people dead or fearing for their lives?

No life deserves to go unmourned, but when we mourn the death of police officers, we cannot allow their experience of violence to blind us to the realities of what policing in America looks like.

If we are serious about protecting them, we would change the very structure of their jobs.

•Mychal Denzel Smith is a contributing writer at The Nation and the author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching