Landrum: Words Still Matter

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.

For many, the phrase is non-controversial. For some—such as Vice President Mike Pence—the response is “all lives matter.” This isn’t new. As German Lopez at Vox explained four years ago:

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.”

  1. Police shoot and kill black men in significant disproportion to their percentage of the population.
  2. 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.

27 thoughts on “Landrum: Words Still Matter

  1. Richard Kopf

    Mr. Landrum,

    Written like a guy who has litigated tons of copyright cases. Excellent. Interesting. Thought provoking.

    This is not a tummy rub. Rather, it is to say that your post makes an important point. Precision in the use of words is important.

    But yet:

    As I read your post, I thought about the meaning of “sex” in Title VII and the heated debate in the Supreme Court. Gorsuch said the “ordinary public meaning” compelled coverage for sexual orientation. Kavanaugh applying “ordinary public meaning” came to the exact opposite result. I wonder what the Justices would say about whether the phrase “Black Lives Matter” really means “Save Black Lives” or something quite different.

    Its too bad that Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa is dead.

    All the best.


    PS As a rule, I like copyright lawyers but not patent lawyers.

    1. SHG Post author

      I wondered back when BLM lost traction the first time whether the problem wasn’t the emphasis on “Black,” but the emphasis on “Lives.” Who doesn’t support saving lives? But when it got to hoop earrings and what to call “housemasters” at Yale, it was no longer about lives.

      1. Bryan Burroughs

        I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if people are fighting over how to interpret your slogan, then you picked a bad slogan. Cause then they aren’t talking whatever your ultimate goal is

    2. Charles

      Thank you, your honor.

      Precision is important, but so is accuracy. Each time a word is used in a particular way, that’s precision (i.e., hitting the same spot on the dart board). Each time a word is used with an intended meaning close to its accepted meaning, that’s accuracy (i.e., hitting close to the bullseye). Of course, with enough precision applied over time, the accepted meaning of words can change. But that’s moving the dartboard and it’s a touchy subject (i.e., Gorsuch wanted to move it a foot to the left; Kavanaugh liked it where it was).

      Here, my point is that accuracy is important if we actually want to stop the unjustified killing of black men by police. And, frankly, it’s hard to maintain a great deal of precision without keeping an eye on the target. We’ve been down this road before.

  2. PseudonymousKid

    Sorry, any attempt to talk over the streets or for the streets or even massaging their message to be clearer is white violence just the same as if you had said nothing at all. The streets will speak for themselves and don’t need no fancy advocate to help them out, unless they get nabbed for protesting in which case pro bono legal services will be accepted.

    “Save black lives because black lives matters” is clearer and better if only you didn’t sully it by suggesting it and/or advocating for it. It’s all your fault.

  3. Corey

    This is an excellent post and says perfectly what I’ve been trying to convey to many people for some time now.

    Also, Brian Pullman Jr making this suggestion? SJ is rapidly turning into a subtle pro wrestling blog! Someone call Chris Seaton.

  4. B. McLeod

    But there were no police in the Arbery case. Also, no protests in the Toyin Salau case (or thousands of other intraracial homicides). The real message here is “severely punish white people who kill a black person.”

    1. Charles

      In the Arbery case, Greg McMichael was a former cop and investigator for the DA’s office. That’s close enough for government work. I don’t know enough about the Salau case.

      Also, I believe that at least two of the cops that have been charged in the Floyd case aren’t “white,” so I’m not sure where you’re getting the message of “severely punish white people.”

      1. B. McLeod

        A washout former cop, and two guys who were never cops, in the Arbery case. Not close at all.

        Possible point in the George Floyd case, though the main focus was on Chauvin. I do not have any sense of what would have happened there had all four officers been black.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’ll take a stab at this one. Floyd would still be dead and the kids would need to find another reason to get out of the house.

        1. SHG Post author

          What makes you think Charles isn’t black, Mr. Trumpkin? But even if he isn’t, what makes your obsequiousness to childish platitudes more helpful than his trying to save actual black lives, something he’s done throughout his career and something you’ve never done in your life?

          And I think it’s hysterical how the exact same words could come from someone on either side of the chasm of fools, and yet that eludes you completely.

          1. Jake

            “What makes you think Charles isn’t black, Mr. Trumpkin?”

            Well, mostly the professional headshot next to the bio in the link you added. However, you might reread this chain of comments and notice that I have not mentioned skin color at any time whereas you insist on making it an issue.

            Lawyers, as a class and regardless of skin color, are privileged in comparison to street protesters on matters of criminal justice reform, by way of increased subject matter expertise and wealth.

            “his trying to save actual black lives, something he’s done throughout his career”

            To the best of my knowledge, you and I have never spoken about the way I put my resources to work saving lives, but I’ll pour one out for all the lives Charles has undoubtedly saved working in the trenches of copyright law.

            “And I think it’s hysterical how the exact same words could come from someone on either side of the chasm of fools, and yet that eludes you completely.”

            While this statement is meaningless in reference to me personally, I’m always happy to entertain you.

        2. Sgt. Schultz

          Privileged people (you, jake) should shut the fuck up so aggrieved people (me, jake) can read and think about good ideas.

  5. Miles

    Given the current trajectory of BLM, it’s changed into a competition of whose life matters more. It’s one thing to say, and believe, that Black Lives Matter, but when that implicitly means accepting the new corollary that white lives do not, or that white lives matter less, it’s gone too far.

    I have no plan to kneel, bow, pray, foot wash, give my car or risk my life to pay homage to black people. It’s not that I wouldn’t risk my life to save a black person from harm. I would, but I would do the same for anyone.

    1. B. McLeod

      Or that black lives taken by other blacks matter less. That’s the biggest defect with the slogan The focus is not really on the lives, or on whether they matter. The issue is that the killers are objectionable in these instances. The whole effort is being directed at an issue which is a fraction of a percent of black mortality risk.

      1. Charles

        So you don’t like “Black Lives Matter.” What slogan would you propose?

        Or are you saying no slogan is needed because this “whole effort” should be directed to heart disease and cancer, which are far more likely causes of death?

        1. SHG Post author

          BM’s issue is that the focus of BLM is only on the cops (defund police, anyone?) while the foremost cause of a black man being murdered is another black man. So if black lives matter, why only when the cops kill them? The error of this argument is that crime happens, which is its nature, but that doesn’t excuse being killed by agents of the state, which is of an entirely different nature.

          1. Charles

            Thanks for clarifying. By writing “black mortality risk,” it seemed as if he was referring to all causes of death.

        2. MelK

          It is a shame that a slogan is deemed necessary for any progress to be made. It’s almost as if having a slogan is more important than having a cause.

          1. Charles

            Slogans have been used for centuries. Think “Don’t Tread on Me” or “We Shall Overcome.”

            There’s going to be a slogan. The only question is whether it’s a good one.

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