I am a vehement supporter of Black Lives Matter. Some people mistake this to mean that I support everything every member of every chapter of the group says or does — that I have some explaining to do every time a Black Lives Matter member makes an outlandish remark or chucks a bottle into a crowd of police.
Not so. What it means is that I support the movement's overarching cause, the termination of an injustice that I believe to be real — the discrepancy between the value society places on white lives vs. the value we place on black lives.
But as much as I support their cause, I have found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with some of the movement's methods, particularly in Minneapolis as it relates to the shooting death of Jamar Clark. I'm certainly not alone, but while most peoples' frustration stems from the types of protests the Minneapolis chapter of BLM has been conducting — from blocking freeway traffic to camping out outside the Fourth Precinct station — my frustration has more to do with the narrative the local group has built those protests on.
I don't necessarily have a problem with the highway shutdown. It wouldn't be the first tactic I would choose, but I think interrupting privilege and forcing people to pay attention is an important component of the BLM game plan. And while I've heard legitimate criticisms of this tactic, such as the hypothetical ambulance responding to an emergency, this criticism also illustrates the essential claim of Black Lives Matter — as it places more importance on the life of the hypothetical victim in the hypothetical ambulance than on the life of the real victim who was already killed.
I also don't have a problem with the precinct campout. If an institution is a purveyor of injustice, it deserves to be a target of the protests fighting those injustices — even if many of that institution's members are providing the admirable and essential services that most police officers do indeed provide.
Where I do have a problem with #Justice4Jamar is that both of these protests have been based on a version of the Jamar Clark story that, in all likelihood, is not entirely true. Black Lives Matter Minneapolis has gone all-in on an improbable counternarrative that, in the long-run, could greatly reduce its credibility and ability to attract widespread support.
In the BLM narrative, Clark is an innocent victim, face down on the ground, handcuffed and helpless, when he is shot in the head by Minneapolis police. The shooting has been confirmed to be true. However, other evidence suggests that the rest of this narrative is not. It suggests that Clark was not innocent nor handcuffed nor helpless — that he was violent toward his girlfriend, and violent toward the police and paramedics attempting to provide her treatment, and that it was his own actions, reaching for the weapon holstered on the belt of one of the officers, that ultimately led to his death.
Right now, we don't really know. We have our own versions of the story in our heads. But as the investigation continues, the larger truth still evades us. Even when that "truth" comes out, when the official version of the story has been released, it still likely will be made up of incomplete and contradictory evidence. And no matter what the official version of that story says, I understand why people, specifically those associated with Black Lives Matter, will still be skeptical of the version produced by the very institution they are protesting.
What I'm fairly certain about is that, upon its release, this official version will put to rest many of the claims that Black Lives Matter Minneapolis has been purporting about Clark's death — claims that have played an integral role in the controversial protests the movement has been conducting.
In a way, we've seen this movie before. It played out a year ago in Ferguson, Mo., when unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. As in the Clark case, the immediate details were murky. We knew the end of the story, but not how we got there. Many narratives were created to fill in the blanks, but the narrative adopted by the newly created Black Lives Matter movement and the nation as a whole was "Hands up, don't shoot."
In this narrative, Brown and a friend were walking down the street when they were stopped by officer Wilson, who noted that Brown matched the description of a suspect in a convenience-store theft and tried to question Brown on the matter. An altercation occurred. Brown ran. Wilson gave chase. Realizing that his attempt at escape was futile, Brown stopped, raised his hands in the air and prepared to give himself up. Wilson then shot Brown six times, killing him on the spot.
It's easy to see how this story inspired national outrage. "Hands up, don't shoot" chants rang out in marches and rallies across the country, even making appearances in rap concerts and at NFL games. The problem with the chant is that it wasn't exactly true.
According to multiple eyewitness accounts, Brown did not have his hands up. Instead, he was charging at Wilson when the six fatal shots were fired. Furthermore, prior to the shooting, Brown had robbed a convenience store, and he assaulted an officer (Wilson) and tried to grab his weapon. In other words, "Hands up, don't shoot" was more than misleading. It was a lie.
I suspect that #Justice4Jamar may be heading in the same direction — that the shutdowns and sit-ins and marches that have been conducted in Clark's name ultimately will have been built on a narrative that inaccurately reflects the final moments of his life. I also suspect that once this narrative has been discredited, the Minneapolis chapter of Black Lives Matter will be discredited as well, just as the movement was in Ferguson.
And as a BLM supporter, that frustrates me. It undermines all of the other crusades against racial injustice that are built on real narratives — narratives without exaggerations or fabrications, narratives that are just built on good, old-fashioned, real-life, institutional racism, Narratives that are built on the truth.
While "Hands up, don't shoot" and #Justice4Jamar have succeeded in bringing much-needed attention to the Black Lives Matter mission, not all press is good press, and when the Jamar Clark headlines are turned on their heads as they were in the Michael Brown case, that publicity will only be used to discredit the movement on a larger scale.
This is the last thing Black Lives Matter needs. Already enough people out there deny the existence of systemic racism, don't understand the inherent ignorance in #AllLivesMatter and continually cite black-on-black crime as the reason that the Black Lives Matter movement is bogus. How is the movement supposed to challenge these falsities, much less win these people over, if it destroys its own credibility?
The unembellished narratives of the Michael Brown and Jamar Clark cases have aspects that maybe should be part of the injustice that Black Lives Matter is trying to combat. Brown and Clark may not have been saints or martyrs, but they were still two unarmed men who did not deserve to be shot in the head. If these narratives were used correctly, truthfully, they could provide powerful support to the larger battles Black Lives Matter is fighting against the excessive use of police force and the targeting of black bodies.
But once these narratives have been corrupted with the slightest hint of dishonesty or disingenuity, it discredits the whole message and becomes ammunition for the opposition.
So please, Black Lives Matter, don't make the narrative of #Justice4Jamar more than it is. The fact that another unarmed black man was killed by a police officer is enough. If it comes out that Clark was indeed handcuffed, then, yes, by all means, go crazy — shut down highways, occupy precinct stations, rally, march and boycott.
But until we know for sure, don't treat that narrative as truth. Continue to demand the truth, but don't create your own version of it. Because if your own version turns out to be anything less than truthful, you will lose the support of a lot of people. And that's a shame, because the support of a lot of people is exactly what the Black Lives Matter movement deserves and needs.
Bill Boegeman, of Minneapolis, is a social-studies teacher.