“George Floyd’s story is the story of black folks. Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being — because you kept your knee on our necks.” — Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr.
Last Wednesday I was walking the streets of Washington DC armed with my camera on my way to the White House. I was following the protests that for more than 10 days have been marching for justice for George Floyd, a black man who died after officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck while he was handcuffed on the ground, shouting that he couldn’t breathe. I was waiting for the traffic light to change on the corner of Constitution Avenue and 15th Street when I ran into 3 young women holding signs that read “If You Are Neutral In Situations of Injustice, You Have Chosen the Side of the Oppressor,” “End Police Brutality, Black Lives Matter, No Justice, No Peace!” An African-American driver shouted to the girls “Yeah! Black Lives Matter!” “Shut up! All Lives Matter!” the black woman sitting in the front snapped at him while smiling at me. But let’s be honest, all lives matter? Of course, but not until black lives matter.
For those who are American, the Black Lives Matter movement may be familiar, but it may sound new to the rest of the world; until now. However, despite all the news spread around the world about the police brutality that led to the death of George Floyd and the ensuing repression of protesters by police authority, it’s time to refresh our memories about the origin of the Black Lives Matter movement. My hope is that as many people as possible will understand that to counter the term “Black Lives Matter” with the deception of “All Lives Matter” is a misconception which forgets and denies centuries of injustice and oppression towards the black community in the United States.
The Black Lives Matter Movement
Black Lives Matter is an international human rights movement, originating in the African-American community in the United States. To learn and tell the history of the Black Lives Matter movement is sad because it implies to accept first and condemn later, centuries of white privilege that imposes systemic violence and oppression of the black community in the United States. The movement was born in 2013 by using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012. The movement became nationally recognized for street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African-Americans: Michael Brown—resulting in protests and unrest in Ferguson, a city near St. Louis—and Eric Garner in New York City. All these frightful events of police brutality were recorded on video and rapidly spread all around the nation. This explains the speedy emergence of the movement in contrast with the slow action of justice. This also leads us to ask ourselves, “how many weren’t filmed?” Too many, we would suppose.
As we can read in the official website of the Black Lives Matter Foundation (BLM), today BLM is a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on black communities by the state and vigilantes. At this point, to hold a conversation about why a movement such as BLM should exist is far more productive and important than to keep falling into rhetorical conversations about all lives matter.
Why Black Lives Matter?
In August 2017, white nationalists and neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, with torches, giving the Nazi salute and chanting phrases such as “Sieg Heil,” “White Lives Matter” and “You Will Not Replace Us.” The images of the violent mob of mostly white men sent shockwaves through a nation deeply divided by race. In addressing the march of white nationalists, President Donald Trump refused to denounce white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Instead, he reluctantly blamed the “hatred, bigotry, and violence” on “both sides,” making reference to the anti-fascist organizations that counter the marches of the white supremacists. These comments add to the rhetoric and actions of a president wholly uninterested in advancing the cause of civil rights. Three years later, on Monday June 1st, Attorney General William Barr ordered the police to fire tear gas at peaceful protesters in front of the White House, so that President Donald Trump could pose for a photo in front of the St. John’s Church holding a bible.
After these outrageous events, should we still keep falling into rhetorical conversations about the name and definition of the BLM movement? If we take a quick look at a few more insights regarding income, health and education in the black community (without having yet to speak about the self-evident police brutality), surely we will be convinced to avoid rhetorical conversation. For instance, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) the African-American community had significantly lower educational attainment and home ownership and almost twice the proportion of households below the poverty level compared with whites across the lifespan. This is a condition that makes the African-American community much more vulnerable to COVID-19, just to name an example familiar to us during these days.
According to new research by the Economic Policy Institute, in 2015, the racial wage gap stood at 26 percent, with whites taking home an hourly real wage of $26 on average, compared to $18 for black people. The gap is especially wide for young black women and black male college graduates, both of whom trail their white counterparts’ earnings by a significant distance. African-Americans have always been more vulnerable in the labor market. They regularly experience higher unemployment rates and work in worse jobs, which feature lower pay and fewer benefits, than white people. Moreover, they tend to work in jobs that are less stable than those held by white workers. All these reasons leave the African-American community with significantly less possibilities of access to housing, education and health.
To have African-American descent in the US also means to have 2.4 times more probability to be stopped by a police authority. To be a black person in America certainly means to be more suspected of criminality; then it’s better to not ask again why Black Lives Matter. As Independent Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders has said in a tweet: “George Floyd’s murder is the latest manifestation of a system that callously devalues the lives of black people. Our struggle is and always has been about justice—not justice on paper, but real justice in the real lives of real people.”
What Is the Legacy of the Black Lives Matter Movement?
Marching in Washington DC these days, protesting in front of the White House under a scorching sun has been a hard but comforting experience. I spoke with many people and reporters in the crowds about one thing they think is different from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. There seems to be a consensus about the incredible diversity of the crowd, Blacks, Asians, Arabs, Latins and whites, all together marching and chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot! No Justice, No Peace!” This diversity and persistence is what makes me feel hopeful despite having witnessed violence and police brutality against peaceful protesters all around the nation these days. The abuse of power, the militarization of Washington DC, New York City and many other cities all around the country make more sense in an authoritarian regime than in the United States; but unfortunately, this is the environment we are witnessing for the last 3 and a half years.
My wife and I are coming back to New York City next week where I will hope to keep marching, asking for justice not just for George Floyd, but for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, David Mcatee and all the minorities who are treated with injustice and inequality in this country. Meanwhile, and until we peacefully achieve our goals, I hope I don’t have to have more rhetorical conversations. All lives will matter when Black Lives Matter.
All photos by Pablo Herrera. See full Photo Gallery.
Read this article in Spanish at Espacio Angular.