STOP KILLING US - BLACK LIVES MATTER
We demand an end to death-by-cop.
When we consider specific issues of discrimination, race still trumps class.
by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington. The Crisis, Winter 2015
"Something happening here / What it is ain't exactly clear" sang the Buffalo Springfield, in a song that become definitive of the cultural shifts of the 1960s. The Obama years - meaning the period since 2008 - have also sent ripples, even shock waves through the cultural lives of most Americans. Something indeed is happening here and now in America. I don't mean that it is the "hope and change" Obama sloganized in 2008, and yet Obama's election has inadvertently been a catalyst. I don't mean that this awakening is leading us toward the light; indeed, that's happening is that we have been peering more honestly into the abyss. I do mean that, despite so many frustrations, setbacks and strange twists, the past seven years created fertile ground for the reconsideration and excavation of two perpetual themes in American public and intellectual life. They're not new themes. They've always been with us, however obscured, coded or politicized.
Haven't you guessed them yet? The themes that have always brooded beneath the surface, conveniently glossed over until they are roused by public outcry against a new recession, or another incident of police brutality. Class exists. Race matters. Class creates, or diminishes opportunity. Race impacts lives, and minority citizenship at the bottom of the social ladder has destroyed lives. These should be old truism. These should be stark naked truths. Yet it has taken colorblind idealism, triumphant joy, reactionary racism and widespread shock to seriously begin to unclothe them. It has taken shock after shock throughout the Obama years to begin to make Americans consciously aware of the truths that should be self-evident.
The first shock was that a Black Man with a moderately reformist agenda won the hearts of millions of voters. How could America be racist, if a Black Man ascended to the White House? How could the country not be the land of equal opportunity? In a wave of enthusiasm, hypnotized by Obama's eloquence, for a brief post-election moment the questions appeared rhetorical. In fact, they were starkly answerable.
People remembered that in 2008 Obama had delivered "A More Perfect Union," a speech in which he tendered the possibility that America could resolve its problems with class and race together, ignoring the distinctions and refusing to play "a zero sum gain." But while he spoke the upper echelons of the White working class were experiencing unprecedented economic disenfranchisement. The housing mortgage crisis made relatively secure middle-class Americans aware of the worsening gap between themselves and the truly insulated wealthy. The financial sector reeled; the troubled banks and corporations were bailed out while, in the words of the Occupy Wall Street movement, "We got sold out!"
The Occupy movement sharpened the American critique of the financial sector by posing a very broad critique of class. From its beginnings in New York City's Zuccotti Park, where the outraged Occupiers camped out and parodied Wall Street bureaucracy, its main meme was "We are the 99 percent!" But the meme that underscored class was itself annoyingly classist.
It referred to the statistic that a privileged one percent of Americans owned 40 percent of the national wealth; in other words all the collected wealth of 99 percent of Americans amounted to substantially less than a privileged one percent.
Occupy camps spread across the country. If the middle class was unhealthy, and lacked chances of upward mobility, so the message went, then they would do whatever they had to do to take back public space and political power. Although Occupiers were usually legitimately struggling, they were playing at being hoboes. The movement's failure to respect the cultural and economic diversity within the 99 percent became a weakness.
Perhaps the initial Occupiers honestly believed, with the characteristic presumptiveness of White privilege, that a great victory in race had been summarily achieved. Such thinking suggested that class obviously trumped race, if a Black president was undercutting the middle class and bailing out the banks. Hence, they reasoned, the time was ripe to sharpen the distinction between opportunities offered the super wealthy and rest of us.
For Black Americans considering the Occupy movement, this was problematic. First of all, the Occupy camps suffered from troubles along race lines. Blacks were often in conflict with others in the movement over how to deal with the truly poor and the homeless. Difficulties accumulated as the indigent joined the movement, or in some cases flooded the camps. Many Occupiers were simply embarrassed by them. Efforts were made to expand the objectives of the movement to incorporate issues of gender, sexuality, race and homelessness. But they by and large remained ineffectual.
The Occupy Movement asked Blacks to look at the power dynamics emanating from above, and critique a corporatocracy whose influence was rampant, unmerited and had to be reigned in by structural changes. But when Blacks in the movement looked at who really subsisted at the bottom of the 99 percent, was the overwhelming preponderance of people of color only a coincidence?
For all it merits, Occupy failed to appreciate that there could not be an end to racial politics without addressing the structural issues that had afflicted Blacks long before the housing crash. The question that haunted politically conscious Black Americans was not how could race still matter with Obama in the White House. The conundrum was how could a country that elected a Black president still passively let segregated ghettos, and large oases of socia-economic 'hopelessness remain intact? And turn a blind eye on the rates of Black child poverty and Black incarceration? How could Black people and Native Americans remain the most afflicted of the 99 percent? When we consider specific issues of discrimination, race still trumps class. How could America deny that Black lives mattered?
Black youth in America led the way in encouraging activism that refocused attention away from the clout of the super wealthy and toward systemic racial oppression, particularly in the criminal justice system. Irrational tragedies, provoked them. Trayvon Martin's murder. Eric Garner's murder. Mike Brown's murder. A new challenge was born out of the outrage that escalated after each of these killings was legally sanctioned. "Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks' contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression" writes Alicia Garza, a cultural worker in Oakland, California who founded Black Lives Matter alongside Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. In the same way that Occupy had socially transformative ambitions beyond reforming banking practices, Black Lives Matter, writes Garza, "goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity."
It's important to distinguish between a hashtag, a movement (singular) and many movements. Black Lives Matter is an organization (singular) founded in 2013 shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Black Lives Matter soon found that its social media and Twitter hashtag resonated, a banner with broad appeal. Other equally dedicated organizations, were founded in the wake of the failures of grand juries to indict the police officers responsible in the deaths of Garner and Brown. The phrase "Black Lives Matter" is often used as a convenient banner encompassing the groups that responded to recent events by disseminating protest - both online and in the streets. They include Dream Defenders, The Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Millennial Activists United and other youth-oriented groups in Ferguson, Mo.
One quality that these youth-led movements share is a heavy investment in social media networking. A few years ago "Facebook activism" was often criticized for being an idle millennial generation pastime. But by now the evidence has gathered to the point of certainty that social media is a primary 21st century tool. From late last year to MLK Day 2015, "Facebook activism" efficiently organized thousands of marchers in protests against systemic racism and injustice in law enforcement. The leaders of the protests ubiquitously say the swift escalation of a nationwide Black Lives Matter movement would not have been possible without social media. Activist DeRay Mckesson has worked primarily from Ferguson, where police officer Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown to death. He calls social media the next step in the war against silence. "The history of blackness is also a history of erasure." Mckesson says.
Social "media has given protesters an amplified voice. Because of "Facebook activism," information about the killing of Mike Brown spread like wildfire alongside stories and facts about Black life in Ferguson. These authentic accounts of the prevalence of racism and apartheid-level disenfranchisement soon made Ferguson into a symbol of an America in which too little has changed. Mckesson says it happened because "We were able to document that in a way that we never could have without social media. We were able to tell our own stories. What was powerful in the context of Ferguson is that there were many people able to tell their story as the story unfolded."
In November 2014, activists from various groups protesting in Ferguson or marching against police brutality were granted an audience with President Obama. Participants in the meeting say being given 45 minutes with the president confirmed that their work had garnered massive support. The activists reported they presented Obama with a list of demands, including: 1) requiring the federal government to use its powers to prosecute police officers that kill or abuse citizens; 2) appointing independent prosecutors to handle cases involving police officers; and 3) establishing independent review boards to handle cases of police misconduct.
They reported that the president encouraged them but reminded them that change is slow. However there is nothing "slow" about this upsurge of protest activism dominated by youth.
In late 2014 I replaced the cover photo on my Facebook page. I put up a stark black image that stated BLACK LIVES MATIER, in contrastingly bright white lettering, Thousands-including people of all races-did the same; in other words people of all races have acted in solidarity.
This is Black Lives Matters' primary call to White Americans and other races - that they act in solidarity with the goal of eradicating racism in law enforcement and the school-to-prison pipeline afflicting Black communities. The writings of founding member Alicia Garza have clearly stated that she disapproves of the tendency of some progressive groups to "modify" the rally cry. "When we deploy 'All Lives Matter' as if to correct all intervention specifically created to address anti-Blackness, we lose the ways in which the state apparatus has built a program of genocide and repression mostly on the backs of Black people - beginning with the theft of millions of people for free labor - and then adapted it to control, murder and profit off of other communities of color and immigrant communities," she argues.
Black Lives Matter is a necessary corrective to false notions that we have a post-racial society, or that that successful progressive movements (such as Occupy Wall Street) can only build large coalitions if they are built on the fallacy that class always trumps race. In fact the issues of police brutality and prison industrial complex cannot be addressed without acknowledging a racial stigma. Furthermore, America has resisted acknowledging the plight of impoverished Blacks for so many generations that intentional ignorance has become a habit. Perhaps "All Lives Matter" dilutes the message. The power of the movement is that it is effectively forcing the reality of a racial stigma into the heart of the American consciousness.
Darrly Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and essayist living in Santa Fe, NM. His work recently appeared in the anthology, MFA vs NYC, edited by Chad Harbach.