Black Lives Matter Undermines Catholic Social Teaching

The Black Lives Matter movement undercuts the legitimate—and consistent with Catholic Social Teaching—role of the police in our communities.

After a period of being put on a pedestal that precluded significant criticism, there have been a plethora of recent critiques leveled against Black Lives Matter. Many paint it as incompatible with Catholic teaching. Some have pointed to the founders’ magical beliefs and the prevalence of demonic references at their protests. The movement has been very critical of Church saints and called for violence against our most important symbols. 

Others have pointed to BLM’s general support for violence, including their massive looting, the recent, racially-motivated attempted assassination of a Jewish politician, and the idolization of convicted murderer Assata Shakur. In their violent seizure of power in downtown Seattle, members of the protest movement compared their action to the French Revolution, especially how the opponents of said revolution got “chopped”; this included tens of thousands of Catholic priests, nuns, and lay faithful, especially in the Vendée region.

One critique that has not been leveled enough is that BLM undermines policing that is in line with Catholic social teaching. While at Yale, I did two years of research on policing in the U.S. and Europe. I also worked with Afghan police while deployed to the Middle East as an Army ranger. My police research influenced my conversion to Catholicism because I discovered that the values that underpin the best policing (community policing) are Catholic. BLM’s advocacy presents many challenges for community policing, which shares much in common with Catholic social teaching. Additionally, the beliefs that it furthers come from very anti-Catholic sources. 

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There are multiple studies that show that social movements have a big impact on the character of policing. One recent survey of police showed that, due to the recent criticism, police are less likely to take proactive action, such as confronting suspicious persons. Another study showed that accusations of racism against police led to increased cynicism. Police subjected to such attacks are less likely to support community policing methods and more likely to endorse coercive methods. While police have some professional autonomy, they are heavily influenced by popular morality. 

Indeed, the past several years have seen some significant, tangible impacts on policing. After a period of relative peace thanks to the police’s focused efforts, Baltimore’s violence has now surpassed the atrocious levels of even the early 1990s. Furthermore, the strength of many forces has plummeted. Nationwide, a survey indicates that two-thirds of police forces are having trouble recruiting. In Seattle, where protestors violently seized a part of the city, the police force has gone from an already low strength of about 1,350 officers in 2018 to 950, losing about one-third of its strength. 

In community policing, police supplant crime by rebuilding civic values. This method of policing is in line with Catholic social teaching because it is both rigorous and humane, improving respect for the rule of law while also promoting communal fraternity. Rather than promote the law through fear from an aloof position, police patiently build relationships to instill the law in the hearts of citizens, similar to what Christ did in the Sermon on the Mount. 

Many studies indicate the effectiveness of this form of policing, attributing to it the “Boston Miracle” of the 1990s. Sociologist Peter Moskos, who spent a year on the Baltimore police force, reports on some of the results of community policing. During a rare time when he and his partner did a foot patrol, he recounts that a woman “saw me and a partner and was practically overcome with emotion: ‘God bless you two! Like angels in blue. Thanks for all your work! It’s so good to see you out here.’”

For it to work, community policing requires the support of the community. It is essential that police are able to build relationships rooted in mutual respect with the communities that they serve. It is also essential that they have a common vision for the rule of law such that they can work with local partners to improve civic values. 

Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, has sparked tremendous disdain for police, casting them as an oppressive force that has no link to the communities they serve. Police have seen many relationships fray. In addition, they have encountered many strange notions of the rule of law that prize subjective desires over objective morality. Police are having a very difficult time building relationships and, further, turning those relationships toward a good purpose. 

In addition, police simply fear for their livelihood. Black Lives Matter advocates putting near-complete trust in the testimony of witnesses associated with alleged victims. They advocate punishing police officers with very little procedural protections. Indeed, they have been shown to use deceit and violence to influence judicial processes. Even without the threat of judicial action, police risk being humiliated and ostracized from their communities—as are many officers, especially African American ones. In this kind of environment, police will think that one small mistake could lead to them becoming the most hated media figure nationwide. Although claiming to improve community, BLM’s policies make community policing ineffective and imprudent for officers to attempt it. 

As a result, policing has become more reactive. Rather than proactively focus on improving public order, police have little choice but to react to past crimes in an ever increasingly frantic effort to stamp out fires after they have begun. Further, police have had to put some distance between themselves and the communities that they serve, investing less in relationships. This is a deterrence strategy, and many studies cast doubt on its effectiveness. With less police presence, there is more room for nefarious figures to seize power. For example, the insurrection in Seattle led to the rise to power of rapper Raz Simone. Glorified by the media, he is currently being sued by five women for sex trafficking. 

The history of American policing reveals a similar unfortunate trend. The counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s greatly frayed the relationship between communities and the police that serve in them. Therefore, community policing was replaced by aloof and reactive policing. Our murder rate more than doubled between 1962 and 1978. Public order collapsed in many cities, and general cynicism increased. When combined with the devastation brought about by the New Left in other areas of cultural life, the weakness of the rule of law made organic community very difficult. 

Whereas the philosophy behind community policing is in line with Catholic social teaching, BLM’s vision for policing comes from very non-Catholic sources: neo-Marxist social scientists. Although it seems ambitious to talk about the philosophy behind BLM, my policing research has made it clear to me that philosophical beliefs can have drastic impacts on the character of policing. Dubbed the “secular bible” by supporters, The New Jim Crow is the source of the main beliefs of the protest movement. City Journal has done some excellent critiques of the work, showing that its statistics are grossly manipulative and misleading. 

Importantly, The New Jim Crow’s criticisms have an ideological basis: the theories of academics Angela Davis, Loïc Wacquant, and, ultimately, Michel Foucault. The book describes the first two as “intellectual heroes” and cites them extensively. 

Angela Davis was the vice-presidential candidate for Communist Party USA. Although she advocated for the abolition of the U.S. prison system, she was a fan of Soviet gulags, calling the prisoners “Zionist fascists” who “got what they deserved.” Wacquant and Foucault take Marx’s theories about economics and apply them to the rule of law. Foucault was a supporter of Mao. 

The most influential of these three is Michel Foucault. According to a study by the Spanish National Research Council, he is the most widely cited single author in all of academia. In Discipline and Punish, he starts by elevating the subjective experience of individual bodies to the center of philosophical inquiry. He argues that any social attempt to build a sense of ethics beyond subjective bodily experience is actually some kind of nefarious conspiracy with the goal of objectifying bodies for the purposes of subjugation and exploitation by the “carceral state.” One of the worst purveyors of this oppression, so the argument goes, has been theologians, who have artificially constructed a soul to imprison the body. 

As for police, they are an outside force completely separate from the communities that they serve. Police aim to establish omniscient surveillance and omnipresent control, not to protect citizens or enforce just laws but only to oppress hapless victims who have no agency. In History of Madness, he relativized madness, which contributed to a great decline in care for the mentally ill, such as the great deinstitutionalization of the early 1970s. Police are left with a significant burden and little support when dealing with this population. With ideas like this gaining in influence, community policing is doomed. 

The vision of policing being pushed by BLM is not good for the relationship between police and the communities they serve. True community policing will be ineffective and imprudent in this environment. Police will be cast into a reactive and aloof role, hopping from call to call with little connection to the people that they deal with. Problematic ideologies are at the center of this vision, and they are gaining influence alongside the movement. The poor are the ones who will suffer most due to a breakdown of the rule of law and the rise of destructive ideologies. 

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Alexander Frank

    Alexander Frank is a recent graduate of Yale Law School where he did research on community policing and studied comparative law.

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