There’s a meme going around that purports to have a great response to people who use “All Lives Matter” as a retort to “Black Lives Matter.” It uses the analogy of a house that’s on fire, stating that if the Smiths’ house is on fire, you wouldn’t say ‘All Houses Matter’ and spray water equally at all houses, you’d focus on the house that’s on fire. If the analogy helps some people to understand why the statement “Black Lives Matter” does not imply that other lives do not matter, then it’s doing some good, and that’s wonderful.
But it also misses a major part of the context in which “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry, and invites the response that “you should care about black-on-black violence as much as you do white-on-black violence.” In the fire example, we don’t ask who set the Smiths’ house on fire, or why the Smiths’ house in particular is the one that’s on fire, but maybe we should, because it might change our response and reaction. If someone in the Fire Department had poured gasoline on the Smiths’ house, then the right question isn’t “Which houses matter?” or even “Which houses should we draw attention to?” but rather “Why is the fire department increasing the risk of fire?” and “How did an arsonist get hired by the Fire Department?” Black Lives Matter didn’t gain national prominence as a reaction to overall mortality rates, but specifically emerged in response to the threat of police violence against African-Americans. We empower and employ the officers of the government to keep us safe. When the state performs violence on its own polity, it deserves greater scrutiny than when private citizens commit violent acts, because we have specifically entrusted those entities to reduce the level of violence in society. As a lawyer, part of what I find so horrific about instances of police brutality is that sworn peace officers, who ought to be as or more dedicated than anyone else in the country to the principles of equal enforcement of the law are instead subverting the law for personal interest or for the sake of their own “in-groups.”
So by all means, let’s use the fire metaphor as a jumping-off point if it helps someone to realize that valuing life isn’t a zero-sum game, but let’s not pretend that’s a sufficient or complete depiction of the reasons people are protesting. Trevor Noah eloquently described how deaths at the hands of the police demonstrate that the social contract is not being upheld, and the simplistic example of a house on fire without a single bad actor elides that element.