Ze'ev Ben-Yechiel

What we really mean when we say ‘Black Lives Matter’

The burning issue consuming headlines in America these days seems to be about race and brutality and oppression, about black lives mattering as much as white ones. At the core it’s really about none of these things. What it is about is the paradoxical and very un-democratic necessity of using authorized force to protect democracy, and the usually misguided but inevitable struggle against the most visible symbols of state-sanctioned power to make decisions about our lives against our will.

It’s an issue that’s been around since the birth of modern democracies, and the race card in America has only been used as a lightning rod because race makes quick headlines in a country with a short attention span and a long memory of racism.

In reality, the issue is less flashy and less obvious than race or the right to life. It’s also deeper. No serious voice out there argues that people of a certain color have less of a right to live when confronted by police. Just as no serious voice denies that a policeman has not only the right but the obligation to momentarily deprive citizens of their freedoms if the officer suspects that citizen of being a danger to the society he’s sworn to protect.

While the issue of police authority is inevitable in a large, real-life democracy, its distortion requires other reasons.

As someone who’s worn a uniform along with the power to arrest others, I’m keenly aware of the need for respect from both sides. Indeed the breakdown of mutual respect between a citizenry and their government is the precursor to revolution. Within the ranks of my army unit there was always an unspoken condition for carrying out our superiors’ orders — that these orders themselves carry the sanction of the military. In my group, it was unusual for soldiers to disobey orders, even though we were given the mandated briefing about our duty to disobey orders that were illegal. This was because we had commanders who were respectful toward those under their command.

Respect is what this issue boils down to. Despite what the activist-fueled media likes to suggest, there are few cops out there who suffer the lack of conscience necessary to kill people simply out of bias. But for an American citizenry in love with the concept of liberty and personal sovereignty, the smallest police infractions caught on film quickly raise the specter of state-sanctioned murder, especially on those occasions when it’s found that the police do kill someone unjustly.

When it comes to police brutality, race relations in America have given the media an “angle”, an interest that transforms a theoretical discussion into a personal one. Counter to the usual mantra of conservatives, America’s history of slavery and discrimination won’t go away in one generation or even three, and whether the US government has properly addressed it is still very much debatable. When slave labor was used to produce the world’s strongest cultural and military power, it’s not surprising that race is still the biggest sore spot in the American conscience.

As someone who lives on a different continent, I probably wouldn’t be taking the effort of writing this had I not been a victim of police brutality myself. My case had nothing whatsoever to do with race and everything to do with a Middle-Eastern culture in which neither the rulers nor the ruled seem to have much respect for one another, and where any hint of professionalism in the police force is drowned out by terrorism and nationalistic tensions. The result is that, unlike America, abuse of power by the police is barely an issue, even though it is the norm and not the rule.

Growing up in America as a young “white” male for whom the speed limit was more of a caution than a moral obligation, I did have a handful of interactions with the police, in which I was treated consistently with respect and professionalism. I didn’t appreciate what I had in America, or even what I had in the Israeli army, until my experience as an Israeli civilian taught me the value of professionalism in the armed forces — specifically, what it feels like to be on the receiving end when that professionalism isn’t there.

Therefore I’m not going to join the counter-chorus of those who claim that police brutality isn’t an issue. It’s an issue in America as much as any other Western democracy, and racial demographics and history make it a racial one as well. But to boil the issue down to a racial one is to willfully blind ourselves to the need to be constantly aware, both as citizens and police, of the imperative of mutual respect in our society.

Sometimes we have to remember the bright side if we want to preserve our civilization. The fact that “Black Lives Matter” was chosen as a slogan should serve as a reminder that life itself still matters in America. In a world increasingly threatened by tyrannical cultures that elevate death over life, that is a precious thing indeed.

About the Author
Ze'ev was born in Moscow, grew up in Chicago, and studied and worked in Ghana, California and Spain before making aliyah in 2004. He currently works as a technical writer and spends his free time taking photographs and pretending to be a guitar hero.
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