Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed the country’s first “Blue Lives Matter” law last week, a piece of legislation that makes a civilian attack on a veteran, police officer, emergency responder, or firefighter a possible hate crime. Louisianans convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes against officers will be slapped with a $500 fine and possibly an additional sentence of up to six months.
The Black Youth Project (BYP), a national youth civil rights organization with a chapter in New Orleans, is at the forefront of the fight against the law, which they believe is a direct and belligerent response to the Black Lives Matter movement and a legal attack on Louisiana’s most vulnerable and marginalized residents.
The law expands on already existing strict legal protections for police officers, said S. Mandisa Moore-O’Neal, a civil rights attorney and BYP member in New Orleans. “If I slap you, that’s a simple battery. If I slap a police officer that’s battery of a police officer,” O’Neal explained. “We already have a precedent of law enforcement, anything involving law enforcing, having heightened punishment attached to it. This isn’t about law enforcement not being safe, it’s part of a political agenda.”
Julie Baxter Payer, the governor's deputy chief of staff, told Fusion in an email that the governor does not view this law as targeting communities of color. In the statement about the bill, Governor Edwards said “coming from a family of law enforcement officers, I have great respect for the work that they do and the risks they take to ensure our safety.”
Anneke Dunbar-Gronke, part of BYP's leadership in New Orleans, told me the law is redundant and that she sees “no existing precedent that can trust this [law] will be used in a way that will protect citizens,” adding “when it’s a police officer’s word against civilians we see how that’s played out specifically when it’s a black person or a person from a community of color.”
“The danger in that redundancy is that it further criminalizes black people, poor people, and those with the least access,” she said.
The vague language of the law, Moore-O’Neal said, also leaves communities more susceptible to legal trouble. “The purpose of these sorts of legislation is not public safety for the public but safety for the elite,” she said. “The purpose of this is to quell social unrest.” Moore-O’Neal, who is black, explained that the law can be easily interpreted to quell free speech.
“Who is to say if I am protesting or having direct action against cops?” she said. “Who is to say that isn’t a hate crime?” In late May, BYP helped organize the “National Day of Action to End State Violence Against All Black Women and Girls,” with actions that took place in at least 21 cities across the country.
Fusion reached out to the ACLU of Louisiana about the bill’s impact on communities of color but its Executive Director, Marjorie Esman had no comment on the law at this time. According to the Guardian’s The Counted, a database of civilians killed by the police, 5 unarmed Louisianans died in 2015 at the hands of the police.
The political climate motivating Blue Lives Matter legislation, Moore-O’Neil said, is steeped in the country’s historically brutal treatment of black Americans. “So we’ve inherited a legacy of racist violence in which white victimhood is commonplace,” she said. “If you look in the 1960s at the most blatant examples of racist violence—during Detroit bus integration, Boston, Portland, in New Orleans and Birmingham—it boils down to an idea of white victimhood and I don’t think we’ve really unpacked that. There’s such a connection to violence and white victimhood. This is the grandchild of that legacy.”
A letter by BYP, sent to the Governor’s office via email on May 25, urged him not to sign the bill. “Violence against the police is not a pervasive issue that merits special protection for law enforcement, and furthermore those protections already exist under current state law,” the letter said, “and thus if this legislation is enacted, it will most certainly be used to target protesters whose practices and goals are both just and legal.”
But now that he has, and it’s become law, the organization is looking forward. Dunbar-Gronke says BYP is concentrating on “how to make sure that this doesn’t happen in any other states,” and hopes that if “other folks see bills like this, they’ll have a chance to kill it or give it the kind of challenge that it deserves.”
The more sobering part of this strategy is a waiting game. “In order to do anything to take that law off the books is to wait, unfortunately, until harm is done,” she said. “The next legal recourse is when someone is harmed, and hopefully not harmed beyond repair.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.