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No Slogan Is Safe From Politicians

Mitt Romney tweeted that “Black Lives Matter.” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser painted it on the street. But will they fight for true reform? (Probably not.)

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The moment we have all been waiting for has arrived: Willard Mitt Romney, a man who claims his favorite meat is “hot dog,” showed up at this weekend’s protests in Washington, D.C. It’s easy to mock Romney, as I have just done, but it must be a sign of something new happening when a Republican politician marches in the streets against racist policing.

Consider the common skepticism about that phrase just a few years ago, after the Ferguson and Baltimore protests. Republican Senator Rand Paul said in 2015 that the movement should change its name to All Lives Matter; even Democrat Martin O’Malley once admonished protesters with the same point. Others, like then–New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Ted Cruz, argued that the BLM movement was pushing for the murder of police officers. It was classic white grievance politics. So something must have changed, at least a little, for politicians like Romney to use the phrase, and for Democrats to embrace it so fully.

The question is whether that’s a good thing. We may be entering a new phase of these protests—one where the chief danger is not that they will be brutally repressed but that those in power will neuter them with careful co-optation, with sweet but poisonous encouragement.

There may be no better demonstration of this dynamic than D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s move last week, clearly designed to enrage President Trump, to order city workers to paint “Black Lives Matter” in enormous yellow all caps across two blocks near the White House. It was an ingenious political ploy. Her initial tweet of it went viral, garnering press the world over. Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak praised it as “a clapback so mighty, it can be seen by satellites.” The move, which Bowser has now tweeted about more than a dozen times, has elevated her profile such that she’s even being mentioned in the Democratic veepstakes.

Bowser has long been in conflict with Trump and the Republicans over D.C.’s autonomy (or lack thereof) and last week had sparred with the president over the presence of federal troops in the District. It’s easy to see Bowser’s move only in this context, as a bold rebuttal to Trump’s increasing fascism. But Bowser didn’t paint “Trump Sucks” on the street; she painted an endorsement of the protests’ core message. People who reacted to Bowser’s big yellow letters, and who have little familiarity with local D.C. politics, could be forgiven for assuming she has a commendable record on the issue of police violence against people of color. But she does not, and the giddy delight over her stunt has threatened to obscure her failures on the very solutions that the protesters demand.

The D.C. Black Lives Matter group quickly denounced Bowser’s paint job as “a performative distraction from real policy changes,” designed to “appease white liberals while ignoring our demands.” (On Saturday, protesters painted “Defund the Police” next to the mural, a clapback similarly visible by satellite.) In response, Bowser said that their criticism “doesn’t mean that I don’t see them and support the things that will make our community safe.” In a news conference on Monday, Bowser handed reporters statistics showing that the D.C. police department’s funding had increased by less than other departments’ over her tenure.

But the demand is not “Slow the rate at which police budgets are increasing.” It is to defund the police—yet her 2021 budget proposal would increase the police department’s budget. According to the Washington City Paper, the District “allocated more money to police and corrections than to programs for jobs, young people, and mental health combined in Fiscal Year 2019.” WUSA-9 reported that the 2021 budget would also “increase funding efforts for traditional policing and reduce spending on more community-based intervention programs.”

There are numerous problems with the D.C. police’s record from Bowser’s tenure as mayor, which began in 2015. Data released this year revealed that 72 percent of people stopped by police in the latter half of 2019 in the District were black. Local activists pointed out that the body-camera footage of the fatal shooting of D.C. resident Marqueese Alston has still not been released, even as his family has pleaded with the city to do so; similar mystery shrouds the killing of D’Quan Young by an off-duty cop who, DCist confirmed last year, had returned to work. So it was hardly surprising to local journalists when Bowser endorsed stop-and-frisk king Michael Bloomberg in the Democratic primary (and even defended him after a 2015 recording surfaced of him promoting that policy).

The stunt stands in similar contrast to her police department’s handling of these exact protests. Just days ago, D.C. police conducted a “mass arrest” of 194 protesters on Swann St. NW, after blocking them in on both sides with dozens of police officers (a technique known as “kettling”). Officers fired pepper spray at the protesters, many of whom retreated into the homes of welcoming residents; some officers reportedly even attempted to pepper-spray protesters through the windows. One protester told Washingtonian, “We were inside, and people were coughing their lungs out.… People were running everywhere, and they had mace in their eyes.” These arrests were done under the authority of Bowser’s 7 p.m. curfew—and under a police chief who ordered the use of kettling during protests in 2017 and 2002.

The genius of “black lives matter” is that the core demand is so basic. If black people have to chant and march just to assert that their lives matter, how bad must things be? The flip side of this is that it’s very easy for a politician to say of course black lives matter—without endorsing everything else that the demand implies or even acknowledging their own role in impeding progress. This is the trouble with slogans: Anyone can say them, and no one can control their meaning.

Other cities have followed Bowser’s lead: A street in Raleigh, North Carolina, was painted with 20-foot-high letters reading “End Racism Now.” Is this evidence of just how far we’ve come in turning the tide against racism, and how historic this moment is? Or is it just an easily served platitude for the Instagram crowd—a viral moment instead of real action? Many would agree that it is time to End Racism, just as it is now becoming increasingly easy for politicians to say that black lives matter. It is much harder, and more important, to make progress on enacting policies that would achieve true equality. That progress will necessarily be achieved in conflict with power, not arm in arm with it.