When Words Become Weapons: What Micah Johnson Heard vs. What Black Lives Matter Meant

We say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Then we turn around and say, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

What happens when something from the pen fuels the sword of anger? It seems words can hurt if they are looked at through the right lens. They can hurt a lot.

Black Lives Matter was born in a hurtful place. It began in violence. But leaders emerged from that chaos who had learned violence was not the answer. These leaders understood what Martin Luther King, Jr. said so many decades ago:

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

So the leaders call for peaceful protest. They say that the Black Lives Matter movement is meant to bring about awareness and change in how people of color, specifically black people, are treated by law enforcement. For peaceful protests, words are the only way to communicate to a large audience the experiences and lives lived, and sometimes lost, to the hostile behavior of a few.

But has BLM made clear that it understands that the problem is with a few members of a largely law-abiding group? Has law enforcement leadership made it clear that the problem has been with a few members of a largely law-abiding group?  Until the events of last Thursday night in Dallas, TX, neither were clear enough.

By all accounts, the Dallas protest was peaceful. The participants and the police officers protecting them interacted as compatriots, if not friends.

Other protests were not as quiet. Some marchers sought to antagonize through taunts. In certain areas this behavior escalated into throwing rocks and glass. Some police arrived, not as  peace officers, but as warriors. Mutual antagonism devolved into near-rioting, physical altercations, and arrests.

In Dallas, the only thing clear to Micah Johnson was that white people, specifically white police officers, were all responsible for killing black men.  In his worldview it meant all white police officers must die.

Might Johnson have been influenced in this direction by words used by Black Lives Matter protesters? Chants such as:

“Pigs in a blanket; fry ’em like bacon!”

These words were being used as weapons.

However, Johnson was also likely influenced by the recorded language of the police officers attempting to arrest Alton Sterling as well as their actions. As a man of color in the United States, he probably heard other words being used as weapons, words designed specifically to hurt a black person.

My point is that what you say and how you say it matters. A police officer cannot call someone a nigger or swear at them without expecting possible physical retaliation. Protesters, no matter what color, cannot taunt police and expect each officer to calmly let it roll off his or her back.

We are all human, no matter what color our skin or what we do for a job. Some of us are better than others at controlling our emotions and our reactions. Can any of us honestly say we did not intend to hurt when we used our words as weapons?

Of course not. We meant to hurt. So why are we surprised at any of the reactions we get. We should not be surprised when a physical weapon like a stick or a gun is used in return by someone who is not capable of restraining that impulse.

We shouldn’t be surprised when someone like Micah Xavier Johnson takes the words from Black Lives Matter and translates them into bullets and explosives. Nobody should be surprised when a police officer finally loses control and strikes out at a chanting protester he is supposed to be protecting.

Both sides in this matter must find a way to say, “We understand that the things that have happened are the acts of individuals and should not be used to paint an entire group as monsters.”

Black Lives Matter needs to communicate that they believe most police officers are good people. Law enforcement needs to communicate that all black men are not criminals. As humans we want to see patterns and make generalizations.

As humans we are capable of restraining those habits; we can control the words we use so both sides can come together and find solutions.