Context for Black Lives Matter

I made this video.


OK. So. There’s some tension goin on in the United States, and most media outlets and politicians are so out of their depth that they’re trying to deal with it by repeating the same old “we need to be united, violence is not the answer.” Which is all very well and good, but being united is an ideal, not a plan. And without a plan, all it translates to is “be united by joining me in doing nothing! Don’t speak out or protest because that’s divisive from my non-plan!”

Meanwhile leaders within the Black Lives Matter movement have concrete plans, plans for increasing police training for deescalation, plans for ways bad apple police officers could be held accountable so we don’t keep seeing non-indictments, plans for changing the incentives and structures around fine collection so that targeting the most vulnerable people is no longer the most profitable thing for police to do, there’s so many good changes that should be made and it’s frustrating to see the media spin it into “what is the exact problem to point at? is it that police are racist? or is it that there aren’t enough body cameras? or maybe the problem is purely socio-economic.” And the media spins it as exclusive ors, as if complex problems don’t come from complex combinations of causes and feedback loops in complex systems.

I know a whole lot of you are still catching up on events, and black organizers of social change don’t have time to give 101 courses to every internet person who is of the opinion that “if you just do what police say you’ll be fine” and “All Lives Matter”. Listening to black people is important, and white people have got to talk to other white people to try and get up to speed and learn how to listen. Hence this video.

Here we go.

Black Lives Matter was founded in July 2013 by three black women, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, in response to George Zimmerman being acquitted after killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. If Zimmerman had faced consequences for his actions, maybe it could have been spun as a tragic event involving a lone overzealous racial profiling neighborhood watchman, but the system supported Zimmerman, he was acquitted, thus people feeling the need for a movement specifically focused on the problems that make our justice system treat black lives as mattering less than white ones.

And there’s many such problems, but we’re gonna skip to July 2014 when Eric Garner was killed by police and it was captured on video and the world said I can’t breathe. His death alone was cause for protest but the media reaction and statements made by politicians made it clear that black lives were being treated as mattering less, like the absurd focus on how he was selling loose cigarettes, or how he had asthma which made him easier to kill anyway, it was really messed up. His death was ruled a homicide but there were no indictments.

August 5 2014 John Crawford III shot in a walmart while carrying a toy gun that walmart sells, in Ohio, which may I remind you is an open carry state. Someone called 911 reporting that John Crawford was pointing a gun at children, and there’s a chilling video where he’s standing there chatting on the phone with the toy gun point down, no one else in sight, certainly no children, when suddenly the police rush in and start shooting immediately. Once again, no indictments. 

August 9 2014 Michael Brown was shot by Ferguson police. That he was shot, again itself was cause for protest, but the media reaction and police response and outpouring of support for Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, was all really worrying to a lot of people. And when Wilson was not indicted, that once again sent the message that this was not just a mistake made by bad police, but something allowed by our justice system and supported by a lot of American citizens.

November 2014 Tamir Rice, a 12-year old kid, killed by police. Again there’s a messed up video where he’s playing by himself in a park with a toy gun, also in Ohio, and the cop car speeds up to him and an officer shoots him within two seconds of stopping. Once again, no indictment, and somehow some media outlets saw fit to start reporting on the criminal records of this 12-year-old victim’s parents.

April 2015, Freddie Gray disappears into a police vehicle and comes out with injuries so severe he goes into a coma and dies a week later. Again, there are protests. Freddie Gray’s death was ruled a homicide, and it turned out there was no cause to arrest him in the first place. There’s still some ongoing trials but the only completed trial had the result everyone was dreading, Edward Nero was found not guilty on all charges.

July 2015 Sandra Bland, a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter, gets pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, and there’s a video where the officer absurdly escalates it into an arrest. The officer involved ended up getting indicted for perjury, but no indictments have been made in connection with how Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell 3 days later. It appeared to be a suicide but an investigation revealed some weird inconsistencies and the results have not come out yet, it’s ongoing.

So many other people I could name, but I’m gonna skip to this past week. 

July 5th, 2016, Alton Sterling, having just been tased, is held down, face down lying on the ground by two officers, and is shot multiple times, and it’s all on video from multiple angles because he was shot to death in front of his friends. It’s so clear, so unspeakably sickening, and yet the media starts to talk about well he shouldn’t have been selling CDs anyway and let’s hear both sides of the story, maybe it’s ok to shoot someone who you think has a gun in their pocket, maybe it’s ok even if you’re already holding them down after tasing them, isn’t that such nice balanced news coverage.

The very next day, July 6th, Philando Castile gets pulled over for a broken tail light, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds is next to him, kid in the back. They comply with everything the officer asks and they inform the officer that he has a concealed carry permit and is carrying a legal firearm, and the cop shoots him multiple times. She starts streaming video and the contrast between her trying her best to calmly comply even as the cop is screaming and pointing a gun at her and her dying boyfriend… realize how absurdly inappropriate it is that some media outlets followed this up with an accounting of how many tickets he has gotten, because that’s the worst dirt they could find to excuse his death. Do not let anyone make excuses for this man’s death. Do not let them excuse it with tickets.

All those events and more led to protests around the world, and some people exploited some of those protests as a chance to loot and cause damage. On July 7th 2016, someone exploited a protest to set up an ambush against police. A lot of media outlets and politicians are trying to spin a dangerously irresponsible narrative where it’s a war between Black Lives Matter and Cops rather than that the sniper was a messed-up loner with a grudge, who was himself military, who said he had no connection with Black Lives Matter, who simply took advantage of knowing there’d be heavy police presence at a protest. 

Pretending otherwise is just an excuse to discredit Black Lives Matter and ignore their very reasonable requests.

The officers who were killed are being treated with dignity and respect as they should be. No one reported about those officers’ past infractions or how many complaints had been made against them or their family members’ criminal records. No politicians spoke out in support of the killer, the NRA didn’t put out a statement supporting his second amendment rights, and televised news didn’t replay the footage of their deaths over and over and over speculating that maybe they would have lived if they’d just taken cover here or had worn different equipment, no one speculated whether a medical condition may have contributed to any of the officer’s deaths. There’s no campaign raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of the man who shot those officers, he’s not on national news telling his side of the story in some twisted mockery of fair and balanced reporting, the man who committed these killings was blown up by a robot.

Let’s not forget the thing that makes a black person expressing anger about white people on the street or in a tweet a very different thing from a mainstream politician backed by voters demeaning black people on national TV. Let’s not forget the imbalance of power that makes racism “racism”, rather than just prejudice, and the imbalance of power that makes racial profiling from police doubly harmful. Police are backed by institutional power and many do use this power wisely to protect the safety of American citizens, but when someone backed with that kind of power does wrong, again and again we see them not facing consequences. We can’t force a jury to indict someone, but we can protest, so we protest.

I hear people talk about how white people and people of color besides black people also get unfairly killed by police, or that there’s other crime too, and the system is unfair to other people too, and that’s all the more reason that we’re all in this together. Some people have more at stake, but this is all our problem.

I’ve put this all very mildly. My heart goes out to those who don’t put it mildly, to those who are angry and afraid, who raise their voices and don’t have energy left over at the end of the day to be extra nice to those who still don’t get it. I know there’s a lot of white people out there who are afraid or unsure of whether or how to engage with any of this because they’re afraid of doing it wrong or being called racist when they’re just trying to help, and, I sympathize, but you’ll live. So go listen and learn and good luck everybody.