“Blue Lives Matter” Bills
On May 26, 2016, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law HB 953, or what media outlets are dubbing the “Blue Lives Matter” bill. The first of its kind, HB 953 prosecutes crimes against law enforcement and other first responders as hate crimes, increasing their penalties and punishments.
It succeeded in the Louisiana State Legislature, passing unanimously in the House and with only three “nays” in the Senate. This bill was introduced and passed back in April and May, months before the shootings of five police officers in Dallas, the death of Alton Sterling, and the death of Philando Castile.
These recent tragedies, however, have inspired many other “Blue Lives Matter” bills akin to Louisiana’s, as well as some comparable backlash against them. The resulting conflict has created an atmosphere of opposition between law enforcement and the black community.
Even the bill’s nickname, “Blue Lives Matter,” is politically charged itself. A phrase borrowed from the movement starting in 2014, Blue Lives Matter has set out to protect law enforcement officers and their families in response to the then recent killings of New York Police Department officers, and to anti-police brutality rallies started by some Black Lives Matter protesters.
Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, is a movement that got its start online in 2012 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in his trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Created out of frustration with law enforcement’s seeming unwillingness to protect black citizens, a fundamental goal of the Black Lives Matter movement is to call out violence against black people.
In July of this year, the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile occurred just a day apart, the 6th and 7th respectively, and on the 8th, five Dallas Police Officers were killed at a protest by a single gunman allegedly as retribution for deaths of black people at the hands of police.
Shortly thereafter, many state legislatures (even those on vacation) began discussing “Blue Lives Matter” bills. On July 11th, Wisconsin state representative David Steffen informally proposed a bill to follow Louisiana’s suit and prosecute crimes against law enforcement, as well as firefighters and other emergency responders, as hate crimes with harsher punishments.
Florida representatives Dennis Baxley and Neil Combee proposed their “Blue Lives Matter” bill on July 13th, just days after. On July 14th, Pennsylvania representative Frank Burns introduced HB 2261, another “Blue Lives Matter” bill.
In an interview with USA Today, Governor Edwards of Louisiana indicated that he stands by his decision to sign HB 953 into law. Though he wanted to clarify that while he signed the “Blue Lives Matter” bill, he recognizes that systematic studies show some police use “questionable force” with African American men. Governor Edwards continued to say that “Reality is reality. I don’t think it serves us well to ignore it.” That being said, he does not view HB 953 as an attack on Black Lives Matter, claiming “the two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Representative Steffen, author of the Wisconsin “Blue Lives Matter” bill, addressed this discord when he first announced the bill. He explained, “I hope folks will be open-minded about this bill and fully understand that there is not any effort to downplay, or diminish, anything else that’s going on.” Looking to gain public awareness and solidify this legislation’s as future law, Steffen welcomes any talk of the Wisconsin bill in the media.
Those who disagree with the bill’s intention, however, argue that diminish and downplay is exactly what it does. In late July of 2016, Chicago resident Paul O’Neal, an 18-year-old black man, was shot in the back and killed by a police officer after a controversial encounter -- some officials are still trying to recover the accurate details. Amidst this controversy, Alderman Edward Burke, a key player in amending police-community relations, has voiced support for “Blue Lives Matter” bills.
Since then, Ja’mal Green, a spokesperson for the family of O’Neal, has argued that Blue Lives Matter distorts the intention of the Black Lives Matter movement and creates a “false equivalency”. "They created Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter to combat what we’re saying, all we’re saying is we want our life to matter," Green said. "All we’re saying is we want our lives to be invested in."
While buzzwords and soundbytes seem to pit Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter against each other, there are some who hope to resist this commentary and bring both issues into the spotlight.
“Blue Lives Matter” bills will be entering assembly floors in upcoming sessions. If not mainly to further protect police and first responders, “Blue Lives Matter” bills bring a prominent community conflict into national political discourse and offer a space for discussion with a possibility of legislative change.
Veronica Tien is a student at the University of Texas double-majoring in American Studies and Economics and a current intern with Project Vote Smart. For more information on internship opportunities with Project Vote Smart, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.