The Role of Rhetoric in the New York Cop Killings

Someone was going to make the argument eventually, but this source may surprise. Reason publishes commentary by Jesse Walker wherein he challenges the claim that rhetoric from Black Lives Matter protests incited Ismaaiyl Brinsley to kill New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. He writes:


We’ve been through this argument before. For the last five years—heavily from 2009 through 2011, more sporadically since then—pundits have identified a (dubious) trend of “rising right-wing violence” and then attempted to blame it on rhetoric they dislike. More recently, we have been hearing about an (also dubious) “war on cops,” which again has been blamed on rhetoric that pundits dislike. Sometimes we get both narratives at once.

Walker reminds us of the shifting dynamics of political discourse during the Clinton era following the Oklahoma City bombing. He might have also pointed to the shooting of Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, whose assault was blamed on Tea Party rhetoric in general, and Sarah Palin in particular.

The problem with Walker’s comparison is that it fails to account for the content of the rhetoric in question. When judging whether or not speech incites people to violence, it matters precisely what is being said and what actions are being advocated. As we await the video of a Tea Party crowd chanting for a congresswoman to be shot, we can sate ourselves with the above video of Black Lives Matter protestors chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want them? Now!”


The absurdity of blaming the Tea Party for acts of violence emerges from the fact that violence is antithetical to that movement. The principles of the Tea Party, and the broader conservative/libertarian community, center on the sanctity of individual rights – including the right to life.

By contrast, a considerable segment of the Black Lives Matter movement has been defined by violence. We watched Ferguson literally burn as rioters expressed themselves by stealing and destroying their neighbors’ property. We’ve seen malls overrun by trespassers and interstate freeways shut down in defiance of people’s rights. The contrast with the Tea Party is night and day.

The Black Lives Matter movement shares profound moral responsibility for the killings of  Ramos and Liu, not because they dared criticize the police, but due to the particular actions they have advocated and modeled. They’ve created a sense of war between the police and the broader community. It should hardly surprise us when a sense of war produces combatants.

Walker makes a legitimate point, echoed by MSNBC, when he highlights that Brinsley was mentally unstable like many past perpetrators of violence. “We don’t have any reason to assume that any of the rhetoric people have been blaming for his murders played any role in his thinking at all,” Walker writes.


The point remains that the substance of Black Lives Matter rhetoric advocates precisely what Brinsley did. So whether he was directly exposed to that rhetoric or not becomes a moot point. He did what those protestors marching down his city’s street in the above video called for. He gave them dead cops. Those protestors can’t wash their hands of that.

(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here.)



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