WASHINGTON– The last several months have seen an outpouring of activism, with slogans coming in waves: “Justice for Mike Brown,” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” and “I Can’t Breathe.” But the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has emerged to bind each flashpoint into one cause.
The 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of George Zimmerman served as the first of these flashpoints, snowballing in August with the murder of Michael Brown. “Ferguson is the birthplace of what’s happening right now. In many ways, Ferguson is like ground zero of these protests,” said DeRay McKesson, who has been protesting and organizing in Ferguson since August. He also co-produces a daily Ferguson newsletter with Johnetta Elzie.
“When I think of Black Lives Matter, that’s the way people talk about the work as it spreads. It’s easier to say, ‘Black lives matter,’ but I think the Ferguson Movement and Black Lives Matter are one in the same.” Although McKesson is currently focused on ending police brutality and unaccountability, he said he believes in the importance of eventually dismantling all social and political oppression, particularly the types that target Black communities. “If all lives mattered, we wouldn’t have to be here talking about Black lives matter,” he explained. “What we’re seeing is people confronting injustice. You see a collective confrontation against injustice…it’s a creating of a radical new space in Black politics.”
Black Lives Matter has also become an organization. Three activists, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi co-founded the project in the wake of the Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013. Initially, the partners set up BlackLivesMatter.tumblr.com and encouraged activists and organizations to share tactics and broadcast their efforts to uplift Black communities via the website. “[The website] was an interactive project and a way to really promote the need for Black organizing in our communities,” said Tometi, who also serves as the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, based in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Even if you’re not working on police brutality explicitly, there are many other issues that are impacting our communities.”
Today, there are approximately 15 chapters of Black Lives Matter across the nation and one in Canada that are focused on a range of concerns in Black communities, including housing, youth activism, and LGBTQ rights. Its other website, BlackLivesMatter.com, allows Black organizations to meet, network, and collaborate. The project has also adopted a list of demands, including the arrest of Darren Wilson, an end to supplying law enforcement with military weapons, and reinvestment in Black communities devastated by poverty. “Our lives are being systematically attacked all across the board…it is not just at the hands of police,” Tometi said. “Black Lives Matter is a movement about bringing some of those issues and people who are on the margins to the center, and not forgetting about the Black undocumented immigrants, the Black trans person or Black queer person, or disabled people. All Black lives matter. It’s not just having a movement that’s solely about Black heterosexual men, but about all of us.”
For Chinyere Tutashinda, founding member of the Bay Area-based BlackOUT Collective, the movement is about love for Black people and a desire for justice. “It [started] around dealing with deaths, dealing with the murders, because that’s right there in your face – a life has been taken, there’s a sense of urgency to that,” she said. “But it is beyond that as well. It’s also really about how are we ending the war on Black people, and ending the way Black people are oppressed in this country.”
On November 28, members of the Collective chained themselves to a BART train as part of a series of actions to disrupt Black Friday consumerism. The Black Lives Matter movement had declared a national day of protest and economic boycott, with some groups successfully causing the closure of shopping malls, Wal-Marts, and other retailers. The news of these protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement in general, has primarily spread through social media and Black media instead of White-owned major mainstream outlets. Even when retailers saw an 11 percent drop in Black Friday sales, most mainstream media outlets did not include the movement’s efforts in their analyses of the profit loss. “The media follows where the fire is. They have followed the fire really well… but I think that they’ve only done that because we made sure people were out on the streets,” Tutashinda explained. “The reason that Black media and Black journalism came to be was because we understood as a people and as a community that our stories weren’t being told. It’s ok [for Black journalists] to know that their role is to help this [movement] move forward.”
Black media has not only amplified the voices of those on the ground, but has also attempted to further conversations, most recently seen in Essence’s February 2015 issue. The magazine dedicated its 45th anniversary issue to the Black Lives Matter movement, featuring 15 essays from luminaries such as Angela Davis, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Al Sharpton. It is the first time in the publication’s history that its cover did not feature an image, opting instead for bold words against an all-black cover. “Black media has always brought attention to conversations that are happening throughout our community, and sometimes we’ve been the only source for some of the issues that are important. But what’s happening right now is that Black social media has not only been driving the conversation, but also the movement,” said Essence editor-in-chief Vanessa K. De Luca. “A number of the people included in the package, they’re all saying that this isn’t just a movement emerging out of chaos. There really is a lot of organization and planning and thought around this whole movement,” she said. “What I think is so important, especially for Black media, is that we can surface that information.”
In addition to the issue, the publication is launching a new Civil Rights Watch series to chronicle the movement’s developments, wins, and losses moving forward. A few gains have already been made. The Justice Department is investigating police conduct in a few cities. Seven bills aimed at police regulation and accountability have been introduced in Congress. One was signed into law: the Death in Custody Reporting Act requires states receiving certain federal funds to record all citizen deaths in police custody, and for state Attorney Generals to analyze this information and develop a plan to reduce such deaths. A handful of police indictments have also been attained, for the shootings of Rekia Boyd, Levar Jones, and recently Bernard Bailey, who was killed by a police officer four years ago in South Carolina.
“It’s great to see publications such as Essence magazine…have a special edition issue called Black Lives Matter. Media plays such a critical role in informing our people. And NNPA publications are so important for our communities especially in rural areas and big cities; this might be the only thing that they read about this movement for black lives,” Tometi said. “[Media] thinks they have to do a balanced story… but in giving two sides equal platform it skews our understanding of how many people really agree with what. The way press culture operates provides a false sense of balance, when overwhelmingly, there’s support for the movement.”
By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent