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Why Black Lives Matter Is the Movement of the Year

Published by Truthdig.com on December 30, 2015

Black Lives Matter activists march in Minneapolis in November. (Jim Mone / AP)

Although more than two years have passed since three black women—Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi—founded Black Lives Matter (BLM) in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the U.S. justice system’s continued failures clearly illustrate why the movement is still as important and necessary as ever.

Earlier this month, a Baltimore judge declared a mistrial in the case of William Porter, the first of six officers to be indicted in the death of Freddie Gray.

Then, just five days later, on Dec. 21, a Texas grand jury decided not to indict anyone in the mysterious police-custody death of Sandra Bland.

A week after that, a grand jury in Cleveland similarly refused to indict anyone for the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Bland’s mother said at a press conference, “I simply can’t have faith in a system that’s not inclusive of my family. … We feel like we have been shut out of this process from the very beginning.” Rice’s family released a statement echoing a similar lack of faith, saying: “[W]e no longer trust the local criminal justice system, which we view as corrupt.”

Meanwhile, police continue to kill.

On Christmas Eve, officers in Dearborn, Mich., killed Kevin Matthews, an unarmed 35-year-old black man. Then on the day after Christmas, in Chicago, officers killed two African-Americans: Quintonio LeGrier, 19, and Bettie Jones, 55. Both incidents came just weeks after a damning video of the 2014 Chicago police killing of Laquan McDonald, 17, was released to the public, sparking massive protests.

This year alone, according to a database compiled by The Washington Post, police killed nearly 1,000 civilians. Of those who were unarmed, 40 percent were black men, even though black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population.

These are some of the reasons that the most important racial justice movement of the past two years is called Black Lives Matter. If black lives mattered to the police and our criminal justice system, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald and others would probably still be alive. If black lives mattered to the system, the officers responsible for these deaths would be serving time.

Thus, BLM activists across the nation have been continuing their vociferous protests against police violence through the holiday season, under the banner of #BlackXmas. In Minneapolis, where activists have worked hard to hold police accountable for the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark, 24, demonstrators planned a rally at the Mall of the Americas.

It is quite appropriate that they chose to target a major retail establishment during the busiest shopping season of the year. Mall officials panicked and tried to block the rally, and a judge banned three activists from making an appearance at it, but in the end the protest went forward—albeit with a massive police presence and several arrests. Hundreds of BLM activists then turned their attention to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, blocking access to it for two hours.

If black lives mattered to nonblacks, we would not see such a tone-deaf response to the Minneapolis airport action as this post in The Blaze titled “Dear Black Lives Matter: Thanks For Taking Selfishness To New Heights.” The author, Mary Ramirez—upset at having her Christmas travel plans interrupted—wrote, “Look, I get it. You’ve got a bone to pick, and you’re looking to make a splash by disrupting the Christmas plans of thousands of completely innocent people at the country’s biggest mall, and at a major airport.”

Ramirez is probably reflecting what most nonblack Americans might feel if they are personally inconvenienced by activism over the life-and-death issue of racial justice. To those who remain unaffected by police violence, BLM is simply an annoyance, an inconvenient disruption to business as usual.

A compilation of eloquent responses to the standard complaints against BLM in The Huffington Post included this one that Ramirez and her ilk ought to read:

What they say: “I’m fine with protesting, but why don’t they protest in front of a police station or another approved location instead of blocking traffic?”

What we hear: “I’m fine with protesting, as long as I’m not forced to see it, hear it, acknowledge it, be at all inconvenienced by it or challenged to do anything about it.”

The Christmastime protests were not restricted to Minneapolis. There were BLM demonstrations in cities across the nation, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. That so many people took time away from family and community in order to protest racial injustice is a testament to the serious commitment of the movement’s activists, several of whom were arrested during BlackXmas actions and spent Christmas in jail.

There are two Americas when it comes to police brutality and racial justice—the one that blacks experience and the one that whites experience. (Nonblack people of color occasionally get the former or latter experience, depending on circumstance.) What the past two years have shown us is that killings of African-Americans by police is continuing to happen, continuing to be recorded, continuing to be protested and continuing to be condoned by a justice system hellbent on absolving the killers of black folk. It has also shown us that the movement that this injustice has spawned is shrewd, adapts quickly and is here to stay.

Although American society’s response to BLM protests has not been strong enough to bring about any real justice yet, there have been some measurable successes about which the movement can rejoice. Chief among them is that mainstream commercial media have been forced to acknowledge BLM’s importance. Cosmopolitan magazine—not exactly a liberal or even political rag—glowingly profiled the three female co-founders of BLM this October. The New York Times, in a recent editorial, cited BLM as one of the “Moments of Grace in a Grim Year,” saying the “movement spread a message of peaceable resistance.” And CNN published a lengthy chronicle titled “The rise of Black Lives Matter: Trying to break the cycle of violence and silence.”

There is evidence that the movement has even caused news institutions to adjust their coverage to focus more on institutionalized racism. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times hired a reporter to cover Black Twitter, which is very telling given that most prominent BLM activists are extremely active on social media and have used it as an effective tool to spread their message. The Times is even hiring a national “race and justice” writer to cover “the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police” and “the sudden prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Many movements of the left have struggled for years to get the type of media recognition that BLM’s hard work has yielded. 

The movement has also influenced the presidential race with its early tactic of confronting the most liberal candidate in the Democratic nomination race, Bernie Sanders, followed by encounters with other candidates. The Washington Times, a conservative paper, has acknowledged how Black Lives Matter has “forced all three candidates to change their strategies when discussing race relations and appears to have influenced their policy platforms, with each increasingly focusing on criminal justice reform, police brutality, equal employment opportunities and other issues.”

Sanders even said of Bland: “There’s no doubt in my mind that she, like too many African-Americans who die in police custody, would be alive today if she were a white woman.” It is unlikely that Sanders, who started out focused mostly on economic justice issues, would have made such a statement were it not for BLM’s relentless and unforgiving activism aimed at his campaign.

To be sure, the movement has its critics, especially those who worry that it didn’t confront Hillary Clinton as much as it confronted Sanders. Some also see the fact that it is a loosely organized movement, without clear leaders, as a weakness. But compared with Occupy Wall Street—the last high-profile progressive movement—BLM has managed to achieve a great deal, including making its leaderlessness a strength.

As long as black people continue to be killed by police and the responsible police officers continue to go free, Black Lives Matter is not going anywhere. Of all the activist movements deserving of recognition at the end of 2015, BLM emerges as a clear leader.