Conservativism, Black Lives Matter, and the Rule of Law

At the Republican Convention Donald Trump branded himself as the “law and order” candidate. Since then, his rhetoric has not let up. At each rally since the convention he has repeated the same claim. With the murder of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge still on the nation’s mind and Black Lives Matter’s new list of demands in the news, there is a palpable sense of fear that law and order is breaking down in the United States.

Trump says he is the only one who can crack down and solve it.

Even though murder rates have been falling since the 90s, 51 percent of Americans are concerned “a great deal” about crime and violence, a significant increase from a low of 39 percent in 2014. Donald Trump’s new self-proclaimed role as protector of the rule of law is perfectly timed to tap into the concerns of ordinary Americans.

But, by painting himself as the law and order candidate, Trump is also implicitly labeling his political enemies, specifically Black Lives Matter, as agents of chaos. While he may not “tell it like it is,” it’s clear that Trump has signaled to his supporters that they should fear Black Lives Matter as a threat to the rule of law.

Trump isn’t the only Republican pushing this message. At the Republican Convention, Sheriff David Clarke forcefully called the Black Lives Matter movement “anarchy,” and Chris Christie is on record blaming Obama for encouraging the movement’s “lawlessness.”

Their argument make for good politics, but it is absolutely unconvincing.

Black Lives Matter, as a movement, is relatively peaceful and its local leaders have been quick to denounce violence of all kinds. More importantly, re-establishing the rule of law is essential to the broader movement. Black Lives Matter, in a way, actually agrees with the conservative right.

The central complaint of Black Lives Matter is that black Americans simply are not treated equally under the law. While black people are around 13 percent of the population, they make up nearly 40 percent of the population incarcerated for drug use despite a usage rate that is nearly identical to whites.  Blacks are also 17 percent more likely to face the use of force from a police officer after controlling for other variables. If you’re black, it’s hard to think that the law is treating you fairly.

Black Lives Matter isn’t wrong to think that this unequal treatment is really a breakdown in the rule of law.  Arbitrary enforcement of a law more heavily against one group than another is what we expect from countries like Russia, not the United States. We’ve enshrined the belief that this type of lawmaking is impermissible in the 14th Amendment and the Declaration of Independence, but to black Americans, it looks like we’re not living up to these standards.

Black Lives Matter’s complaint isn’t just with how law is being applied to black people; it’s also about the perception that this same law isn’t being applied to police officers. Since the rise of social media, the Internet and television have been plastered with images of police violence, reinforcing the belief that cops are not being held responsible for their actions. Whether the actions of the police officers who ended the lives of Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, or Tamir Rice were criminal or not, these killings catalyzed the notion that the police are above the law.

This complaint is not unsubstantiated. Since 2005, only thirteen officers have been convicted of murder or manslaughter. In 2014 and 2015, there were no convictions. This small number of convictions is taking place in an environment where, between 2005 and 2016, police have killed more than 1,000 people, on average, per year. It’s nearly impossible to charge a police officer, let alone convict one for violence against the civilians they are charged with protecting.

The immunity of the police, or any group of individuals, is one of the deepest signs of a collapse in the rule of law. When certain people can get away with actions that others cannot, trust in legal institutions almost always collapses. This is one of the many reasons why black Americans show up for jury duty in such low numbers. Minority communities are also less likely to assist in police investigations and officers inevitably end up feeling isolated from the community and less safe.

Real conservatives realize that upholding the rule of law is absolutely essential to building a safe and free country. Luckily, some are realizing that the ideals of Black Lives Matter aren’t all that different from their own. A growing number of Congressional conservatives, like Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), are joining the increasingly bipartisan fight for criminal justice reform.

We could make much needed progress on the issue of race in America if conservatives came to realize that Black Lives Matter doesn’t need to be an enemy in the fight to preserve law and order. If conservatives put themselves in the movement’s shoes, they might realize that they both want exactly the same outcomes.

Patrick Holland is a Young Voices Advocate and senior at Swarthmore College.