Ed. Note: This is a guest post by Roswell, Georgia, lawyer Charles Landrum.
As lawyers, words are our stock in trade. Words matter. Choosing the right words can make the difference between whether your client wins or loses, whether the judge grasps your argument in the first paragraph or tosses it onto the “denied” pile. And when drafting a motion, words are chosen carefully to avoid traps from—and sometimes to set them for—the other side. And words almost always are at a premium, with page limits constraining every choice along the way.
So I can’t help but analyze these three little words: black lives matter.
One of the most common responses to “Black Lives Matter” is “all lives matter.” But that response misses the point, as this great cartoon from Kris Straub at Chainsawsuit demonstrates:
Mr. Lopez continued:
The point of Black Lives Matter isn’t to suggest that black lives should be or are more important than all other lives, but instead that black people’s lives are relatively undervalued in the US (and more likely to be ended by police), and the country needs to recognize that inequity to bring an end to it.
He is correct that responding “all lives matter” misses the point. By a wide margin. But so does “Black Lives Matter.”
Indeed, the lives of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and untold others matter more precisely because of how they died: at the hands of the police. Before they were killed, you didn’t know their names any more than you knew the names of Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner before they died. You know their names now. They matter. That much is settled.
The issue is that they are dead.
This random twit further illustrates the problem with the meaning of the phrase “black lives matter”:
In the first sentence, he writes “us saying #BlackLivesMatter”. In the second sentence, he restates it as “us saying don’t kill us.” But the word “matter” doesn’t mean “don’t kill.” The word “matter” simply doesn’t fit the intended meaning.
Our host concisely summarized the problem a few weeks ago, “Black lives matter. It’s a subset of all lives matter, but it’s worthy of being separated from the greater statement because of two things.”
- Police shoot and kill black men in significant disproportion to their percentage of the population.
- Police shoot and kill innocent/unarmed black men in significant disproportion to their percentage of the population.
In other words, the problem is that “police shoot and kill…black men in significant disproportion to their percentage of the population.” In Mr. Lopez’s words, the problem is that black lives are “more likely to be ended by police”. In our random twitterer’s words, “Us saying don’t kill us shouldn’t be a problem.” The problem is that black lives too often are taken by the police unjustifiably.
What’s the opposite of letting someone take a life? Taking action to save that life. We need to #SaveBlackLives.
Not only are these the right words to convey the intended meaning, they have the benefit of turning a mere platitude into a call to action by using a verb:
And again, not only does the phrase “defeat the rebuttal of someone saying all lives matter,” it actually is a response to the problem that “police shoot and kill … black men in significant disproportion to their percentage of the population.” Black lives need to be saved.
But is #SaveBlackLives really the best formulation?
Again, let’s revisit Vox from four years ago, this time quoting “comedian and activist” Franchesca Ramsey:
This movement isn’t saying black lives matter more than anyone else’s. … A breast cancer walk isn’t unfair to other forms of cancer, and “save the rainforest” isn’t saying you hate all other trees.
Here’s a comic illustrating the “save the rainforest” analogy in the context of “black lives matter”:
“Save the rainforest” is a helpful analogy. But note how awkward the phrase “rainforests matter” would sound. If that’s all one hears, one easily could respond, “Redwoods matter, too” or “All forests matter.” “Matter” simply doesn’t convey the same meaning as “save.”
Therefore, if the issue is saving black lives from unjustified deaths at the hands of the police, the call should be to “save black lives.”
That said—if space is not at a premium—perhaps this is the best formulation of all:
We need to #SaveBlackLives because #BlackLivesMatter.