In the wake of 72 hours that saw two more high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police, followed by a devastating act of domestic terrorism that claimed the lives of five police officers, protests over police accountability have begun anew. So, too, has the debate over what is fueling Black Lives Matter and its credibility as a social justice movement.
After Dallas, some attempted to paint the movement as “inherently racist” and dangerous. Others questioned whether shutting down highways (and failing to dress appropriately) would advance the message or exacerbate tensions. Ironically, even a King foot soldier appeared to dismiss the throngs of demonstrators filling our nation’s streets as “a bunch of frustrated kids.”
Willfully, or not, they’re missing the point. Thomas Paine explained it, when he was pamphleteering for American rights a long time ago: “Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself.”
Nearly a week since Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed and only days since a lone gunman slaughtered police officers after a peaceful protest. Rather than focus on mounting a full and fair investigation of the shooting incidences, as a nation, we are consumed with the politics of it all.
Who could blame us?
We spend more time glued to the brickbats taking place on cable news than we do watching city council meetings. We spend more time fighting with intemperate strangers on social media than we do getting to know people who don’t share our faith and racial background. We remain, unfortunately, a largely segregated society. Whether by choice or economic necessity, we don’t live together and that complicates our ability to see beyond the constraints of our own cultural lenses.
The only America we know is the one we live in.
In some quarters, Black Lives Matter has been embraced for what it is: a call to public engagement, demanding greater transparency and accountability in policing. Those reforms, as detailed by Campaign Zero, include, “a comprehensive package of urgent policy solutions — informed by data, research and human rights principles — (that) can change the way police serve our communities.”
For others, however, the movement is “inherently racist,” ignores gun violence in black neighborhoods and puts “a target on the backs of police.” Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, himself no stranger to defending acts of police violence in non-white communities, declared black children have a “99 percent chance” of killing each other.
It was an outrageous lie, but few television anchors called it into question. Instead, maybe in a quest for ratings, he was invited by other networks to continue the hit-parade.
“That’s the way they’re gonna die,” Giuliani, who in 1999 defended the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, said on CBS Face the Nation. New York City police shot the unarmed African immigrant 41 times, even striking him in the soles of his feet as he lay dying on his front stoop.
For his part, CNN’s Harry Houck said recently, “Now the black community has to also know that they have issues they need to deal with. This isn’t a one-way street here.”
“Black people are prone to criminality,” Houck, a retired NYPD detective asserted.
In his America, there are precious few black professionals—doctors, lawyers, investment bankers and college professors—and, as far as his eyes can see—too many opportunistic thugs waiting for an excuse to riot.
The fact is, 10 percent of the U.S. population—a group that includes all ethnicities—commits 63 percent of all violent crimes. And those crimes are overwhelmingly intra-racial. For instance, 86 percent of white victims are killed by white offenders.
The difference between so-called black-on-black crimes and police violence is that the former is routinely investigated and prosecuted while the latter has largely escaped such scrutiny. Neither Giuliani or Houck would agree that the actions of a small percentage of officers are indicative of the behaviors exhibited by 800,000 cops in the U.S. But they are all too willing to cast moral aspersions on an entire population of African Americans when only a fraction of black people actually commit violent crimes and that approach to policing places real lives in danger.
Black Lives Matter is about that difference.
Ironically, it wasn’t the former mayor or retired detective, but ex-Atlanta mayor Andrew Young who appeared to dismiss the demonstrators entirely.
The young people that lined the streets of Baton Rouge, St. Paul, New York, Dallas and Atlanta are not “a bunch of frustrated kids,” as the former civil rights leader called them in a meeting with a group of police officers. They are our children—black, white and otherwise. Some are Christian, others are Jewish or Muslims, while still others profess no faith at all. But all of them came together in those streets, as Young once did, pressing for change.
There is no central organizing council, nor are things driven by meetings in church basements. These demonstrators aren’t dressed in their Sunday best. There are fewer crisply pressed shirts than there are drooping, beltless jeans. They aren’t singing old spirituals. Instead, they rely on ad hoc planning sessions, phone trees and social media to galvanize the masses.
I am reminded now of the important lessons the mid-century civil rights movement left us. Among them are the value of non-violent civil disobedience. But I am also reminded that Medgar Evers was shot dead in his driveway while wearing a pair of belted slacks and a nice shirt. Dr. King, who was routinely nattily dressed to march in the hot sun, was assassinated on a hotel balcony while wearing a suit and tie. Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a white woman who was killed in Lowndesboro, Alabama in 1965 as she helped shuttle other civil rights workers from Montgomery back to Selma, was wearing a dress and good shoes when she was shot in the head.
Today, the revolution is being live-streamed, tweeted and snap-chatted—and the activists on the ground aren’t concerned so much concerned with their style of dress as they are with the issues at hand. Arrested by the hundreds, they are facing down riot gear-clad police officers while wearing nothing more than a flowing sundress. They are gathering in public parks, on the steps of state capitols and in major intersections. They are marching—shoulder to shoulder-- on streets and highways, interrupting the most powerful symbol of our economy—traffic.
Maybe Young, who was once mayor of Atlanta, does not sound quite like Giuliani but, for those outside that squad room, his words struck a troublesome chord.
For the record, I do not profess to know the mind of Dr. King. Nor—since I was born in 1968, the year he was assassinated—was I a foot soldier, as Young was. But, I have spent the full of my life studying his teachings. Then, too I engrossed myself in the words of Malcolm X, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Huey Newton and Langston Hughes, among others. I have been a social justice activist for well over two decades. In that time, I’ve learned something about the cheap veneer of “respectability politics” and the resilience of the implicit bias those politics do nothing to change.
I am, quite frankly, glad Dr. King never stayed on the sidewalk. I am glad he chose to march without a permit or the approval of men like Bull Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, or Jim Clark, the former sheriff of Selma, Alabama. Now, I am also glad that social justice activist DeRay Mckesson can often be spotted wearing a blue puffer vest and a pair of loud red Nike shoes on the front line.
The truth is Dr. King did not lead every protest and not all of them were planned in a back booth at Pascal’s Restaurant. Most were spontaneous and ignited by grassroots activists who could not wait for the caravan to arrive.
If there is only one way to peacefully protest, if I must dress for that protest as if I am going to a job interview, if there are things I must do to qualify for the Bill of Rights, then they are not rights at all. There is no constitutional mandate on the number and length of the meetings I must attend before I lace up my shoes and raise my voice. There is no Constitutional Amendment saying police officers must agree with my grievances before I make them known.
If a young black girl must cut her dreadlocks to have access to an education, if a black boy has to wear a belt to be regarded in the full of his humanness, where then is equal protection? If one must wear a suit and tie when protesting, speak in muted tones or sing old slave songs to be heard, where then is free speech? If those protesters must stay on the sidewalk, apply and pay for a march permit to step foot onto a city street or state highway, where then is the right to assembly? Is it cordoned off by a behind a Georgia state house and ironically named “Liberty Plaza?”
Black Lives Matter has never been about prioritizing black lives over any or all others. If I go to the doctor with a broken arm, she does not order up a full body cast. Instead, the movement has always been about destroying the barriers to equal recognition and protection under the law that have specifically targeted and disproportionately impacted black people. It has always been about increasing transparency and accountability in the criminal justice system in order to build the trust necessary for a meaningful partnership with our communities. Mutual trust and respect are the cornerstones of good policing and healthy neighborhoods.
Peddling false statistics won’t take us there and neither will romanticizing the civil rights movement, which had its share of disorganization and in-fighting.
Black Lives Matters is not a perfect movement. There were moments when I feared it was not sustainable and that its messages were being lost. I worried openly about how effectively the movement would impact public policy. Honest disagreements remain about the roots of social disparity, and the ways to change it.
Ultimately, we are a better nation because of the work so many did decades ago and we will be better still— despite the pain we are experiencing now— because we did not shy away from this one.