A Struggle for Common Ground, Amid Fears of a National Fracture
It felt like a watershed moment for a scattered and still-young civil rights movement.
Inside Black Lives Matter, the national revulsion over videos of police officers shooting to death black men in Minnesota and Louisiana was undeniable proof that the group’s message of outrage and demands for justice had finally broken through.
Even the white governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, in a pained public concession, embraced the movement’s central argument. “Would this have happened if those passengers — the driver and the passengers — were white?” he asked. “I don’t think it would’ve.”
Then, in an instant, everything changed.
Black Lives Matter now faces perhaps the biggest crisis in its short history: It is both scrambling to distance itself from an African-American sniper in Dallas who set out to murder white police officers and trying to rebut a chorus of detractors who blame the movement for inspiring his deadly attack.
“What I saw in Dallas was devastating to our work,” said Jedidiah Brown, a Chicago pastor who has emerged as an outspoken Black Lives Matter activist over the past year. The moment he learned of the attack on the police, he said, he immediately sensed that any emerging national consensus would “tear down the middle.”
“The thing I vividly remember thinking was, this is going to show exactly how divided this conversation is,” he said.
For those who have harbored doubts or animosity toward Black Lives Matter — among them police unions and conservative leaders — the Dallas attacks are a cudgel that, fairly or not, they are eager to swing.
In Texas, several state officials, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, lashed out at the group, directly linking its tone and tactics to the killings. Mr. Patrick acknowledged that the demonstration in Dallas on Thursday night had been peaceful until the gunman struck, but he accused the movement of creating the conditions for what happened. “I do blame former Black Lives Matter protests,” he said.
“This has to stop,” Mr. Patrick said, adding of the police officers, “These are real people.”
State Representative Bill Zedler, a Republican, was equally blunt in his assessment of the group’s influence on the 25-year-old gunman, Micah Johnson.
“Clearly the rhetoric of Black Lives Matters encouraged the sniper that shot Dallas police officers,” he wrote on Twitter.
But a bigger problem for Black Lives Matter, supported by many liberals, is that Mr. Johnson’s actions could jeopardize the movement’s appeal to a broader group of Americans who have gradually become more sympathetic to its cause after years of highly publicized police shootings.
In the days before the Dallas massacre, Aesha Rasheed, 39, an activist in New Orleans, felt that at long last, white and black America were watching the same images with the same horror: two Louisiana police officers tackling and then shooting Alton Sterling, 37, at point-blank range; the slumped, blood-soaked body of Philando Castile, 32, after a Minnesota police officer shot him through a car window, with his girlfriend and her daughter sitting inches away.
“It seemed like a national consciousness was sinking in,” Ms. Rasheed said.
After the massacre in Dallas, she said, “it turned on a dime.”
She now worries that the episodes involving black men may be overshadowed and overlooked.
“Does this get ignored?” she asked. “Do five officers take center stage?”
Black Lives Matter usually spurns central planning and management. But in a sign of alarm over the volatile situation, leaders of several organizations associated with the movement put out formal statements that repeatedly described the Dallas attacker as a lone gunman, unconnected to the group’s cause.
“There are some who would use these events to stifle a movement for change and quicken the demise of a vibrant discourse on the human rights of Black Americans,” read a statement from the Black Lives Matter Network. “We should reject all of this.”
The police have said Mr. Johnson — a military veteran who told the authorities that he had hunted down white police officers as retribution for their abuses — had no direct links to any protest group.
But in recounting Mr. Johnson’s final hours, Chief David O. Brown of the Dallas Police Department mentioned the movement by name. “The suspect said he was upset about Black Lives Matter,” he said.
The wider world may now expect or even demand a period of reflection and restraint from the members of Black Lives Matter.
But public, nonviolent confrontation, rather than private conciliation, is central to the group’s mission: shouting at police officers, for example, or staging elaborate “die-ins” that evoke death at the hands of law enforcement.
This in-your-face style has at times rankled even the movement’s allies: A Black Lives Matter protester interrupted Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont during a Seattle campaign rally in August and seized control of his microphone, inflaming his aides and some of his supporters. “Excuse me!” Mr. Sanders cried.
That combative approach is deliberate. The group is premised, activists said, on a rejection of what they see as a dominant mainstream culture that has marginalized the value of African-American lives for decades.
Black Lives Matter was born, as a phrase and a rallying cry, after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Florida shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American 17-year-old. By the time demonstrators took to the streets of Ferguson, Mo., a year later to protest the killing of Michael Brown, another unarmed African-American, it was the motto and name of a decentralized collection of activists.
Today, at least 37 groups operate under the movement’s name, and tens of thousands of supporters identify with its cause.
In interviews on Friday, activists scoffed at calls to recalibrate their message or their strategy, or to temporarily pause protests out of respect for the dead police officers in Texas.
By Friday night, protesters had returned to the streets in multiple cities, swarming the Williamsburg Bridge in New York; shutting down a major highway in Atlanta; and marching through downtown Phoenix, where officers used pepper spray and beanbag guns to keep the demonstrators from taking over Interstate 10. In each city, the protesters were trailed by the police, as they were in Dallas.
But it was clear that the national conversation had changed. On social media, Black Lives Matter activists watched with dismay on Thursday night as a squall of outrage and mourning over the shootings of Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile was suddenly overwhelmed by a furious outcry over the shooting of Dallas police officers and messages of rage directed at activists and protesters. The hashtag #blacklivesmatter was joined by #bluelivesmatter, a rival reference to police officers.
“This anti-cop rhetoric has to stop. It’s sickening,” wrote one Twitter user using the hashtag. “We will not forget or forgive,” wrote another.
Sitting in his bed after midnight with an iPhone, DeRay Mckesson, 30, a Black Lives Matter activist, watched the rapid change in tone. “It suddenly became about blame,” he said. “People wanted to link it to the protesters no matter what.”
Undeterred, several activists rebuffed the view of the carnage in Dallas as a potential setback to their cause. Ja’Mal Green, another activist, said the killings were, in their own grisly way, a powerful wake-up call.
“It’s not a setback at all,” Mr. Green said. “That’s showing the people of this country that black people are getting to a boiling point. We are tired of watching police kill our brothers and sisters. We are tired of being tired.”
He insisted that he was not encouraging violence. But he said there “comes a time when black people will snap.”
He added: “It only takes a couple to get past that boiling point. You saw that in Dallas.”
As conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh assailed Black Lives Matter as “a terrorist group committing hate crimes,” activists like Wendi Moore-O’Neal saw echoes of repeated attempts throughout American history, including efforts by the federal government, to discredit civil rights groups and leaders.
“It’s just made up,” she said of those who held Black Lives Matter responsible in any way for the Dallas attack. “It’s not true.”
“I can’t think of any of the justice or liberation organizations that I know,” Ms. Moore-O’Neal said, “that have an investment in shooting cops.”