Over the weekend, at least 7 million people watched Peggy Hubbard, a black grandmother, excoriate the Black Lives Matter movement in an emotional video posted to her Facebook page. 71,000 people liked the post. 16,000 people left comments. And discussions like this one on Reddit rippled out across the Internet.
Two breaking news events prompted the U.S. Navy veteran, who grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, to speak out and share her feelings. In the first, two white police officers killed Mansur Ball-Bey, a young black man. Police say that he tried to flee out the back door of the house where they were serving a warrant and that he pointed a stolen gun at them before they shot, a narrative that his family disputes. In the second news story, 9-year-old Jamyla Bolden was killed by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting as she lay in her mother’s bed. The perpetrator is unknown.
Hubbard’s video commentary tied these disparate events together:
Last night, who do you think they protested for? The thug. The criminal. Because they’re hollering police brutality. Are you fucking kidding me? Police brutality? How about black brutality. You black people, my black people, you are the most violent motherfuckers I have ever seen in my life. A little girl is dead. You say black lives matter? Her life mattered. Her dreams mattered … Yet you trifling motherfuckers are out there tearing up the neighborhood I grew up in.
There is police brutality, she said, but people who believe that black lives matter ought to be protesting black-on-black murder:
You’re hollering this ‘black lives matter’ bullshit. It don’t matter. You’re killing each other. White people don’t care … You’re shooting at the police. They drop your ass. ‘Oh, he died due to police brutality.’ 327 homicides later y’all want to holler police brutality? Black people, you’re a fucking joke. You’re tearing up communities over thugs and criminals.
She had thousands praising and excoriating her. “I had a lot of positive feedback from a lot of people from my black community to keep going,” she wrote in a follow-up post. “I also had a lot of negative feedback from people in black communities.” On Saturday, after more reflection, she posted a new video. She began by apologizing for her profane language. “That is not me,” she said, explaining that she was very upset “because of the deterioration of our society and our neighborhoods, and losing that little girl. As a mother, as a wife, as a grandmother … I have a grandchild that age, and it broke my heart, because what if it was mine?”
She pledged to refrain from profane language going forward––and said she has no intention of shutting up. “Given all the comments I received, black and white, saying, ‘Don’t stop, we need your voice,’ I’m going to keep going,” she said. “This is not a race issue. It never has been a racial issue ... This is about accountability and responsibility ... Last night we had another homicide … and we’re saying black lives matter. Black lives matter, white lives matter, Asian lives matter, Hispanic lives matter, Lithuanian lives matter, Russian lives matter, life in general matters … but it’s never gonna get better until we admit that we have a problem in our community.”
If anyone is surprised by Hubbard’s emergence, or that there are like-minded black people who are encouraging her, it is only because large swaths of the media cover the black community as if conservative voices like hers don’t even exist.
In fact, she is the latest incarnation of a black conservatism that has been around more than a century. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a 2008 feature story on its last public champion, Bill Cosby, who roiled American discourse on race with what has come to be known as his “pound cake speech.” He declared, “Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals ... People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn't have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
Many black people criticized Cosby for that speech. “But Cosby’s rhetoric played well in black barbershops, churches, and backyard barbecues,” Coates wrote, “where a unique brand of conservatism still runs strong. Outsiders may have heard haranguing in Cosby’s language and tone. But much of black America heard instead the possibility of changing their communities without having to wait on the consciences and attention spans of policy makers who might not have their interests at heart.”
With dozens of women now asserting that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted or raped them, he is no longer a viable bearer of this or any other message. But the constituency for which he spoke did not disappear. It was bound to find another champion. In the era of social media, why not a heretofore unknown grandmother? She’s already being attacked in the awful way black conservatives so often are––she reports being called delusional, “the white man’s bed wench,” and “a house nigger.” As yet, she is not being defended by the progressives who typically urge deference to women of color, condemn “tone-policing,” and insist that white people are “speaking from a place of privilege” when they disagree with a black woman.
Hubbard’s response to her diverse critics has drawn on the language of inclusion. “I love my black people. I love my white people. I love my Hispanic people. I love my Asian people. My heart is so full of love for people that it has no room for hate,” she says. “The way I see it, it’s not a black race, it’s not a white race, it’s not an Asian race, it’s not a Hispanic race, it’s not a Latin race, it’s a human race. And right now, the black community, what we’re racing towards is the morgue. Let’s stop it. If you want to help me, help me. If you don’t want to help me get out of the way.”
I share Peggy Hubbard’s alarm at murder rates in poor, black neighborhoods; her dismay at the death of a 9-year-old girl; her aversion to property damage; her belief in the importance of individual responsibility; and even her skepticism about protesting Ball-Bey’s death given the evidence that has so far emerged. But significant parts of her critique of Black Lives Matter seem unfair and wrong, even if the anger and frustration she feels is understandable given her life experiences: a brother and a son who apparently destroyed their lives by choosing to engage in crime.
She’s right that a young, black man in a poor neighborhood is much more likely to be killed by a violent criminal from a nearby block than by an abusive cop out patrolling. And it’s true that good cops are needed to protect people in those same neighborhoods. But the Black Lives Matter agenda isn’t inconsistent with either of those propositions. The movement doesn’t explicitly tout the importance of policing, but it does advocate reforming police departments, not abolishing them. And it does so with overwhelming evidence of deadly abuses and incompetence and the accurate perception that blacks are disproportionately victimized.
For those reasons, urging reforms that would reduce police abuses and improve training is eminently defensible, regardless of how many black men are killed by criminals. The young activists of Black Lives Matter can realistically improve policing policy by bringing the public’s attention to a problem and lobbying for known remedies. In contrast, the problem of violent crime is longstanding universally acknowledged; and there’s no reason to think murderers would murder less if these young, black activists loudly demanded it, especially given that lots of voices in the black community have long inveighed against and worked to stop black-on-black crime.
If President Obama, countless black parents, church leaders, and famous rappers haven’t yet stopped black-on-black murder by denouncing it, it’s reasonable to conclude that Black Lives Matter pays a low opportunity cost by focusing its protests on policing. Perhaps that reasonable conclusion is nevertheless incorrect; maybe violent crime really could be reduced if only more voices joined Hubbard in denouncing violent crime and touting the need for personal responsibility. If so, she’d do better to organize that movement than to complain that other people, who’ve spent more time and energy than she has on activism, have chosen a different goal.
Reforming police and reducing crime are both worthy projects––and despite what some defenders of status-quo policing would have us believe, they need not be at odds with one another. Note, too, that many of the Internet critics who want Black Lives Matter volunteers to spend more time protesting crime in urban centers have themselves done nothing in service of that goal besides criticizing Black Lives Matter.
Hubbard’s most unfair attacks are glaring to an individualist.
“You’re hollering this ‘black lives matter’ bullshit,” Hubbard said. “It don’t matter. You’re killing each other.” In fact, the overwhelming majority of people hollering “black lives matter” have never killed and will never kill anyone. The vast majority of Black Lives Matter protestors are not “tearing up the neighborhood” either. These race-based generalizations rob their objects of individual identities. The fact that some young black men carry guns and commit violent crimes doesn’t mean that other young black men and women––totally distinct individuals who happen to share the same skin color––should have their activism discredited, enjoy fewer civil liberties, or be at increased risk of being killed by cops. It is interesting that the various right-wing news sites that picked up this video failed to catch these flaws, despite fancying themselves champions of individualism, color-blindness, and the rights contained in the United States Constitution.
Hubbard was speaking off-the-cuff at a moment of high emotion; it’s possible that she hasn’t fully considered all the implications of her views; but as stated, they are wrongheaded. She might’ve been on solid ground if she’d stopped at arguing that police were justified in shooting Ball-Bey and that Black Lives Matter was wrong to protest that particular killing; instead, she spoke as if the Ball-Bey encounter bears on the righteousness of protesting other deaths, like Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, or any of the other black men that police officers have been indicted for murdering.
Despite these significant disagreements, I’m glad Peggy Hubbard spoke out on Facebook. It’s generally a good thing when citizens earnestly express their views in public discourse, and she deserves kudos for trying to improve her community as best she can. She has articulated beliefs that are shared by a lot of people, which is itself an important service: Insofar as those beliefs are inaccurate or wrongheaded, better that they be aired and debated than invisible and unexamined.
This viral video and the comments around it also represent an opportunity for the activists of Black Lives Matter to understand how some critics of their movement perceive the world, to engage in conversation and debate, to refine any weaknesses in their own thinking that emerge, and to persuade their interlocutors to adjust some of their positions. In fact, despite Hubbard’s harsh words, I’d bet that, properly engaged, she could be persuaded to voice support for at least a portion of the policing-reform agenda. If so, what an ambassador she would make to millions of potential converts.