“Black Lives Matter” gained traction as the slogan for a movement, because it captured something simple, yet ephemeral. Every time an agent of the state commits an extrajudicial killing of a Black person, the statement reminds us of a basic aspiration: the state should not devalue a person because of his or her race. Few expressed surprise when the expression "Black Lives Matter" became politicized. In America it has always been a political statement to assert the full humanity of Black people, as that humanity has been statutorily compromised by our schools, our jails, our neighborhoods, our corporate institutions, and most of all, our policing systems, since the nation’s founding.
When opponents of the movement for Black lives started to use the slogans “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” it wasn’t just a clever play on words, like when your local Italian restaurant calls itself the "Leaning Tower of Pizza." In the case of “Blue Lives Matter” in particular, the use of the phrase is an appropriation of a political slogan to make a direct counter-argument, namely that eradicating state-sponsored racial prejudice is not as important as conferring additional rights on a particular class of organized professionals. The only discernible political objectives of “Blue Lives Matter” sympathizers is to make it even harder to hold police accountable for violent conduct against Black communities, and to confer upon police officers protected status, by making it a hate crime to attack a police officer.
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a community with a high ratio of “Black Lives Matter” lawn signs to “Make America Great Again” bumper stickers. It’s safe to say that I enjoy a comically stereotypical urban hipster existence (Homemade kombucha! A print subscription to The New Yorker!) Given my sheltered, liberal existence, I can remember – and have photographic evidence of – the only two “Blue and/or All Lives Matter” signs that I have seen in real life. This is the tale of those two signs.
Oaklyn, New Jersey
The “All Lives Matter” sign in Oaklyn, New Jersey covers the entire façade of Lakeview Custom Coach, an auto dealer on Route 30 in Camden County. The city of Camden is less than one mile from the front door of Lakeview Custom Coach, and while the police force for the city of Camden is operated by the county, it only serves the city itself, as each smaller municipality in Camden County has opted to manage its own smaller police force. Below is a chart showing the percentage of people in Oaklyn who are White, compared to both its other neighbors and the city of Camden.
The “Blue Lives Matter” slogan above appears on the church announcement board outside of Grace Ministries in Saugus, Massachusetts. The chapel experienced near destruction in 2014, when an errant boulder was loosed by a construction explosion. The church is on Main Street, less than a mile from the neighboring city of Lynn. Lynn, one of largest municipalities in Massachusetts, is the only community on the Commonwealth’s "North Shore" where Black people make up more than ten percent of the population. Here’s a chart, similar to the one above, showing the White racial makeup of Saugus and its neighbors.
The simple analysis is that the only two “Blue Lives Matter” signs I have seen are in communities that are both more than 90% White, and happen to share borders with the largest non-White communities in their regions. It should go without saying that I’m sharing data based on two anecdotes, and this analysis does not constitute a larger study of the presence of “Blue Lives Matter” sympathy across America.
It is possible that the locations of these signs is coincidental, but proximity without engagement and empathy is one of the great themes of American race relations. The racial compositions of Saugus and Oaklyn illustrate that segregation is thriving in ostensibly progressive locales. Both New Jersey and Massachusetts wear their liberal credentials on their political sleeves, but within a short bike ride of both "The People's Republic of Cambridge" and "The City of Brotherly Love," one encounters factual racial division, and not-so-subtle public displays of racial hostility. Throughout the twentieth century, states without de jure segregation used non-legal mechanisms to enforce racial division, including the infamous "sundown town" signs that James Loewen painstakingly catalogued in his book on the topic. I'm not suggesting that a "Blue Lives Matter" sign is equivalent to a sign telling non-White people to be out of town before the sun goes down. I wonder, though, whether the mindsets - conscious and unconscious - buttressing the two agendas are all that different.