“Not a Moment but a Movement”: Deconstructing the Myths Behind Black Lives Matter

“They’re afraid of the truth” was the statement uttered by former President Bill Clinton in his condemnation of Black Lives Matter protesters at a recent campaign rally for his wife, Secretary Hillary Clinton. A statement which so ironically and poignantly captured what critics of his 1994 Crime Bill have been claiming for the past 20 years and what Civil Rights activists have always acknowledged about those who oppose or criticize their movements. A statement which completely encapsulated  the reasons for America’s stagnation in becoming a truly equal and progressive society. A statement that, in this context, has been oddly misplaced and wrongly used for the justification of fixed beliefs that persist in society about the Black community. Yes, it appears that President Clinton, in attempt to qualify the idea that racism is a thing of the past, inadvertently stumbled upon the very reason of why it cannot and does not remain in the past.  

[NYU freshman, MacKenna Petra Alvarez, is the guest author of this post.]

Being afraid of the truth is precisely what leads many Americans to shift uncomfortably in their seats during any discussion of race and what leads many people down the tricky, discriminatory rabbit hole of making statements such as “All lives matter.” This truth – that, while all lives are inherently equal, they are not treated equally in society – is precisely what the Black Lives Matter movement aspires to confront. Born out of anger and resentment over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who murdered unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, and nurtured on social media, Black Lives Matter is perhaps this generation’s leading civil rights movement.

Started as a twitter hashtag by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in 2013, the phrase Black Lives Matter circulated around the hollows of social media, drifting in and out of popularity until becoming a widespread rally-cry a year later after yet another tragic shooting of an unarmed black man, 18 year-old Michael Brown, who was killed by a law enforcement officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Slowly the movement began to crystalize, as activists led a modern day Freedom Ride under the Black Lives Matter banner to protest against the injustices in Ferguson, a demonstration that drew thousands of supporters and continued to spark movements across the nation. Since then, Black Lives Matter has become a localized, chapter based effort to combat the discriminatory ways in which black communities are policed – through excessive force from law enforcement, racist institutional policies, as well as through media and the creation of harmful narratives against them.  

Yet despite the success of the movement and its growing popularity, Black Lives Matter still deals with its fair share of criticism, most of which paints the organization as being hateful, violent and overall disruptive. Most of the accusations made against Black Lives Matter are largely ignorant of the movement’s overall mission and, as stated before, fail to acknowledge the unspoken truth of American society and the persistence of racism. So in an effort to address the various attacks against the movement, here are three of the most popular misconceptions about Black Lives Matter explained:

“Black Lives Matter implies that black lives matter more than other lives”

Many people have claimed that an invisible ‘more’ has somehow tacked itself onto the phrase black lives matter and that the phrase itself is racist. Yet Black Lives Matter has consistently made it clear that their movement is not “anti-white” but instead serves to say that “black lives also matter” in a society that treats them as if they do not (Black Lives Matter). While the statement itself implies nothing about an exalted status (and in fact says everything about how black lives are given a lesser status), when operating under the false assumption that we now live in a “post-racial” or “colorblind” society, it can appear hypocritical or unnecessary to draw attention to a specific group. However the fact of the matter is that while progress has certainly been made, it has consistently fallen short of completely eradicating the racist principles that are woven into the very fabric of this nation and that still contribute to the unfair treatment of people of color in all aspects of society, including policing. According to the large scale study, “The Counted,” conducted by the Guardian, which tracks every recorded civilian death by law enforcement for a given year, young black men were nine times more likely to be killed by the police in 2015 than their non-black counterparts. In total black men and women, despite making up much smaller percentages of the population than whites, were killed at twice the rate white people were killed by law enforcement and made up a larger percentage of unarmed victims (Swaine 2015).  So to repeat, “black lives matter” does not mean black lives matter more, but that they should matter just as much as other lives.

All houses matter image

“Black Lives Matter advocates violence and cop killing”

Critics, such as Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, often blame the Black Lives Matter movement for inciting violence against police officers, specifically holding them responsible for the killings of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, by Ismaaiyl Brinsley in 2014 and Harris County deputy Darren Goforth by Shannon Miles in 2015. Brinsley, while referencing the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner on social media, was not tied to the Black Lives Matter movement and was publicly denounced by the organization who shared “an eye for an eye [was] not their vision of justice” (Hanson 2014). Shannon Miles was also found as having no ties to the movement despite claims by major news outlets. Even at a BLM demonstration in Minnesota in which some protesters briefly chanted “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon,” which was mistakenly interpreted as a call for police deaths, Black Lives Matter still pointed out that demands for retaliation and violence directly contrast their core principles and their “vision of love” and that the movement as a whole, like any other social movement, cannot be held responsible or defined by a few lone individuals who may think otherwise (Tutashinda 2015). The organization’s statement released after the Minnesota demonstration reaffirmed their devotion to “targeting the brutal system of policing, not individual police” and commitment to peace (Tutashinda 2015). To achieve this, Black Lives Matter activists have put forth ten well-intentioned goals to end police brutality, none of which include the perpetration of violence against police officers or other civilians.

Black Lives Matter is a far cry from the peaceful demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement”

While Black Lives Matter has been described as “not your grandfather’s civil rights movement,” for the structural and philosophical differences that distinguish it from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the use of nonviolent protest and demands for peace and equality remain central to both. Both movements seek to empower the black community and create a society that is rid of racial hierarchies, bias and discrimination. Critics of BLM frequently reference the Baltimore and Ferguson riots that erupted during Black Lives Matter protests as “evidence” of the movement’s non-peaceful motives, neglecting the hundreds of peaceful protests and demonstrations that have surged throughout the nation since the organization’s founding. Critics also wrongly associate any riot that has recently occurred out of frustration over the lack of economic opportunities or years of societal neglect in communities of color as all being a part of the Black Lives Matter campaign. However, aside from wrongly viewing Black Lives Matter as non-peaceful, one of the biggest flaws in critics’ arguments is their assumption that the 1960s Civil Rights Movement was free of violent outbursts and immune to the same criticism received by their modern day counterpart. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly found himself under attack from conservatives and even fellow activists and clergymen for ‘inciting violence’ through non-violent protests that erupted in violent outbreaks against demonstrators. In the same way many fear BLM demonstrations will devolve into violence and chaos, critics of MLK, including the Kennedy administration, believed the famous March on Washington would unravel into a riot. Criticisms aside, perhaps one of the biggest commonalities between the two movements lies in the media’s tendency to provide more coverage of each during times of violence and downplay their peaceful demonstrations. Activists of each movement recognized that media outlets only became interested after violent outbursts at their demonstrations and largely neglected the frequency of their peaceful acts, reflecting the media’s bias that continues to drive the misrepresentation of people of color.  

Untitled

While the hashtag’s peaks in popularity seem to coincide with  the different current events unfolding and overflow of stories of more Black Americans who have been killed by law enforcement, the movement itself has touched on a very prominent, deep seeded issue in American society that existed long before the world ever knew of a Trayvon Martin or an Eric Garner or a Sandra Bland. Black Lives Matter, while owing much of its popularity to its grassroots, decentralized structure and the tireless efforts of devoted social justice activists, has continued to stay relevant for darker, more cryptic reasons. The issue of police brutality against communities of color is no new phenomenon, nor is the nation’s negative response to the efforts that seek to remedy it. For as long as we continue to devalue lives that have been systematically devalued since the birth of this nation, we will forever struggle to wash clean the stains that have soiled our history, our communities, and our asphalt.

Photo credits:

Title image: http://countercurrentnews.com/2015/03/cop-says-killing-black-people-is-okay-because-its-not-against-the-law-to-put-an-animal-down/

First image: https://www.google.com/search?q=all+houses+matter+image&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS614US616&espv=2&biw=1168&bih=719&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwidxNeB997MAhVInRQKHXSyCUgQ_AUIBigB#imgrc=FN2ay0UxgmNIRM%3A

Second image: http://ynaija.com/iftheygunnedmedown-killing-unarmed-african-american-teen-triggers-viral-hashtag/  

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