I’m thinking about #Black Lives Matter and my surprise at the backlash against it. #Black Lives Matter began in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Florida for murdering Trayvon Martin. Coined by Alicia Garza, the phrase has grown to encompass all deaths of Black folks following encounters with police. Pure chance led me to follow #Black Lives Matter on Twitter a long time ago. It’s my go-to source for what’s happening in today’s civil rights movement. I feel like I’ve kinda gotten to know the young folks who founded and breathed life into the movement. I knew DeRay‘s blue vest before it had its own Twitter account. I admire these brave men and women.
So I was taken aback when people began responding to #Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter, which seemed rude to me. Argumentative, really—no, not Black lives, all lives. The topic under discussion had been set by BLM—we’re talking about times when folks act as if Black lives don’t even matter—and others (white folks, mostly) were grabbing the spotlight to shine it back on themselves. As if no conversation could take place without them being center stage.
Then some Black elders began to chastise the kids. “You aren’t doing it right. Look at the way we did it in the 1960s. Do it that way.” Respectability politics, I think they call this, but I don’t know. Again, it seemed like the old folks were trying to horn in on the young people’s moment, hoping to remind people they were still relevant. (Take a look back and be astonished how young John Lewis and Diane Nash and even Rosa Parks were—Ms. Parks is portrayed as a little old lady, but she was not).
Finally, the police popped up with Blue Lives Matter. I halfway understand that. Police think Black Lives Matter is against them, so they elbow their way in to holler, “No, we matter!”
But do the police really believe we don’t value their lives? Is there any town in America that doesn’t turn out en masse when a police officer is killed? We mourn the deaths of those who sign up to “serve and protect.” We grieve the loss of their lives. We commemorate them with renamed highways and memorials and funds to care for their left-behind spouses and orphaned children. That is the way it should be and it is. Of course, the Blue Lives Matter response could just be an attempt to silence criticism. Or it’s possible police officers do feel undervalued, aware we use the police out of fear for our own safety and only really care about them when something bad happens.
So we’ve divided ourselves into sides, all of us standing in a circle shouting at one another. Pro-police, anti-Black Lives Matter; pro-Black Lives Matter, anti-police. As if police aren’t us. As if, in fact, we—by which I mean those of us society sees as capable of influencing policy—aren’t the ones who tell police how to act.
Sometimes we give direct orders, the way Ferguson, Missouri did. Police in Ferguson were harassing African Americans like Mike Brown because the town wanted the money that tickets brought in. That’s what the Justice Department’s investigation found. The Ferguson police weren’t acting in a vacuum or out of character; they were paying the town’s bills, as directed by the city fathers.
Other times we give orders indirectly, by letting the police know we will tolerate the harassment of “criminals” (read: poor Black folks) as long as the police promise to keep us safe.
It’s not working. Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Darrius Stewart and Freddie Gray and Walter Scott and Jonathan Ferrell and Corey Jones and all the other unarmed Black men and women tell us it’s costing lives and money—cities are routinely settling cases for millions and millions of dollars while we remain locked in debate over the particulars of whose fault each instance is. But surely we can agree we don’t want police killing unarmed African American citizens?
As President Obama said in the context of criminal justice reform:
I think the reason the organizers used the phrase “black lives matter” was not because they were suggesting that nobody else’s lives mattered. Rather, what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that is happening in African American communities that is not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.
Maybe fear keeps us from really addressing this. When I read white folks suggesting everything would be okay if Black folk would just start obeying the police, I don’t just hear victim blaming. I hear fear. Fear of the police. Fear of noncompliance. Fear of even asking questions. The fear is greater than the respect for known rights. And when Black folk are advised to act like white folk in their interaction with police, what I conclude is Black folk are braver than white folks. African Americans and #BlackLivesMatter are the standard-bearers for the rights of all of us, and they are paying the price of that bravery, for all of us.
Whenever I look back on the civil rights movement, I’m puzzled by those who observed from the sidelines. I have little patience for the leaders who urged patience and propriety. I really don’t like the lock-jawed police who held the billy clubs, giving the upstanding citizens time to debate the merits of such an obvious evil as segregation.
My turn has rolled around. I don’t want to be in the position of saying, damn—I wish I’d spoken out against a system that over and over and over again justified the extra-judicial killing of unarmed Black Americans.
I support #Black Lives Matter.