A Presidential Candidate Shows the Danger in Saying ‘All Lives Matter’

Martin O’Malley wasn’t the first politician to use the Black Lives Matter counterargument, and he has since apologized.
Moderator Jose Antonio Vargas (left) with Black Lives Matter activist Tia Oso and Martin O'Malley at the Netroots Nation event. (Photo: Twitter/@CandyCornball)
Jul 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Alesia Thomas. Shantel Davis. Sandra Bland. These are just several of the black women who have died during a police interaction or while in custody, but their names are not as widely known as those of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.

Black Lives Matter activists shouted their names and urged others to do the same during an event on Saturday in Phoenix featuring Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. The protest, staged at Netroots Nation, one of the largest progressive conferences in the country, was aimed at raising awarness about police killings of unarmed African Americans—and women in particular.

It seems that message may have been lost on Sanders, a senator from Vermont who alternately attempted to hush or speak over the protesters, and O’Malley, the former Baltimore mayor and ex–Maryland governor, who responded by saying, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter,” according to CNN. The remark was met with a roar of boos from the crowd.

In the context of the Black Lives Matters movement, which seeks to highlight and help prevent police killings of people of color, O’Malley’s statement missed the point: One person’s life matters equally as much as the next person’s, but African American lives are disproportionately threatened by police violence, which gives the activist mantra “black lives matter” an urgent and unequivocal weight.

O’Malley has since apologized for his comment, which he told This Week in Blackness was a “mistake” that he meant no disrespect by. But it’s not the first time a high-profile politician—especially one who has stressed the importance of criminal justice reform—has made this kind of error. Just last month, fellow Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton faced a social media backlash after co-opting the Black Lives Matter language to describe her own journey as a politician.

RELATED: Activists Want Hillary Clinton to Speak Up Now About Why Black Lives Matter

“What kept you going?” Clinton recalled asking her mother. “Her answer was very simple: kindness along the way from someone who believed she mattered. All lives matter,” she said, speaking at a church not far from Ferugson, Missouri, where Brown was killed by police last August.

So, Why Should You Care? Black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be unarmed when killed during police encounters, according to The Guardian’s recent analysis of public records and local news reports. The paper found that 29 percent of people killed by police during the first five months of 2015 were black, although black Americans account for just 13 percent of the overall U.S. population.

RELATED: These Numbers Prove the High Risk of Being Black in America

The counterargument that all lives matter has been misappropriated practically since Black Lives Matter first emerged as a Twitter hashtag following George Zimmerman’s acquital in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. In a New York Times column in January, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler said that people using the slogan “all lives matter” are misunderstanding the problem. She put it this way: “If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation ‘all lives matter,’ then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of ‘all lives.’ ”
But the recent use of the term by O’Malley, who has long boasted about reducing Baltimore crime rates during his tenure as mayor, incited a new round of debates, including a Reddit thread called “Why is it so controversial when someone says ‘All Lives Matter’ instead of ‘Black Lives Matter?’ ” O’Malley’s misstep shows that the Black Lives Matter movement is still misunderstood—even by the people who are in a position to potentially create change and help address the problem of racially motivated police violence. But first, they’ve got to acknowledge it.