By D. Kevin McNeir and Sarafina Wright
It’s been just over three years since Opal Tometi, Patrice Cullors and Alecia Garza, three same-genderloving activists angered at the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the “neighborhood watch” volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, 17, created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
Since then, in a society punctuated by police violence and firmly established racism, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gained momentum, taking on economic injustice and institutional racism.
And while many of its active leaders are lesbians and feminists, it has not developed into a movement that addresses issues more relevant for the LGBTQ community. Instead, its leaders have used social media to their advantage, organizing local chapters across the U.S. while sharing a broad political agenda.
More to their credit, the movement has served as an inclusive forum that welcomes a wide spectrum of the Black community.
Consider the words of Frederick Douglass who said the following in 1857.
“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Now that Black Lives Matter has become a recognized and in many cases, effective protest voice in America, how will their actions affect public policy, policing strategies and other challenges that continue to disproportionately felt by the Black community?
Erika Totten, the founder of the BLM in the DMV shared her views on how she got involved and what she hopes to see in the future.
“After the Trayvon Martin trial, I went into a deep depression. It seemed like it was back to back: Trayvon, then John Crawford, then Eric Garner. Then, when I saw what happened to Michael Brown, and then seeing the response from police of a mourning community that was grieving the loss of one of their kids, and how they were met with military force, I could not remain silent any longer,” said Totten, who added she’s been supported from the start by her husband when she decided that she needed to go to Ferguson. “One of the things that I know we’re having to battle within our own movement is sexism, misogyny — men wanting to silence women’s voices, sexual harassment, homophobia, transphobia — so many different things,” she said. “For actions that are actually being disruptive, and shutting things down, it’s Black women that are organizing, planning and leading these actions. Sometimes we’re the better communicators. We don’t have a lot of ego that goes along with this because we can connect with our sisters in knowing that this is my sister. What happens to her, happens to me.”
Aaron Goggans, a D.C.- based BLM organizer, says action works better than hashtag activism.
“Sometimes we focus on the flashpoint of movements, the things that are immediately exciting, but and we miss a lot of the organizing work that goes on behind the scenes,” he said. “There is a lot of work of building real connections and changing the narrative of how we even conceive of these issues and fighting for power. Good online organizing is cultural organizing.”
“The way we think about it is there are two struggles: the cultural struggle and individuals who create disempowered narratives for Black folks and then there are institutions that are informed by that culture and also reinforce and create that culture which are institutional barriers like mass incarceration. e police set up institutional barriers and what we see time and time again is that folks push against these barriers, but because the culture didn’t change, the culture raises a new institution that is very similar. We had slavery and then we got Jim Crow.”
So, does BLM still matter? Two Black men, from Virginia and Northeast, both say yes.
“Some ethnic groups, like the Jews, keep their concerns at the forefront, and they remain united — we’ve got to do the same,” said Shaun Gause, 45, an Ashburn resident, husband and father.
“We cannot allow Trayvon, Michael Brown and so many other Black youth to have died in vain. We know that Blacks are often mistreated and misaligned in our experiences with the police. And using social media has worked to our advantage because it’s no longer your word versus my word. Now everyone can see what’s going on. We may not like the truth, but it cannot continue to be ignored,” Gause added.
As for James Payton, 37, he says he’d like to see BLM become more organized.
“Of course, they’re still relevant. Yes, the Black Lives Matter movement is still relevant,” he said. “Until we have real justice in America for all people, they’re needed and relevant. But I’d like to see them make their goals and purpose clearer. Like everything else, there can be radicals within a movement that shout hatred or violence. That’s not what BLM is all about. But because they use social media more than anything else, older Americans don’t always know what they’re doing or why.”