Why Teaching BLACK LIVES MATTER Matters

Some content is adapted from Why Teaching Black Lives Matter Matters | Part I, by Jamilah Pitts, with permission of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center – https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/summer-2017/why-teaching-black-lives-matter-matters-part-i

In September of 2019, after a full day of shows during New York Fashion Week, BELLA team members Jessica G. Cirz + Cheryl Dantoni Devine and I saved ourselves from the rain—and hunger—by spilling into a Chinese restaurant in NYC.

At the table next to us, I overheard two young photographers talking about the Fashion Week hustle, going from show to show. I smiled to myself because I know it all too well. When my food came, one of them looked over and said how good my plate looked. I took the opportunity to share my food with both of them and talk.

We ended up chatting up a storm about fashion, BELLA, and life in the city. We exchanged information. I kept in touch with one of them— Brandon Parker, a media student.

Scrolling through Instagram, his photography brought me to tears. Given everything going on in our city, I was reminded me of the beautiful moment we shared over something we both love: eggplants + fashion.

His work has evolved tremendously since then. Understandably so—he’s a Black man. I reached out to him to share his work in this issue. More importantly, I wanted to delve into why as content creators, we have the civic responsibility to learn and teach the basic history and tenets of this movement for racial justice. Brandon’s work matters. His life matters.

We have all had either direct or mediated exposure to Black Lives Matter (BLM). We should know the basic facts about the movement’s central beliefs and practices. As a communicator and truth-seeker, I can acknowledge how the threat of justice in one community is, to borrow from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a threat to justice in every community. We have a civic responsibility to be educated about Black Lives Matter and, as we learn, we must inform.

THE BEGINNING AND THE HASHTAG

The Black Lives Matter movement began with a commitment to end police brutality and state-sanctioned violence and injustice against Black people. It is also dedicated to affirming Black people’s “contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression,” according to its founders.

The movement was started by three Black women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida man who had shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, the preceding year.

Garza took to social media the night of that acquittal, stating in part, “Black people, I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” A year later, Michael Brown, another unarmed Black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; the officer was not indicted.

Shortly thereafter, the internet was filled with messages of outcry and support that included #BlackLivesMatter.

Since the Ferguson action in 2014, BLM has taken shape as a multi-chapter national organization; 37 chapters currently operate in the United States, and one in Canada. Many BLM chapters and other organizations that embrace the movement mobilize people to demonstrate in communities where police shootings have occurred and to convene at large gatherings—such as political rallies—to bring awareness to police brutality. The website of the original group, BlackLivesMatter.com, also lists other types of local and national events, such as teach-ins, panels, and Twitter chats, and encourages organizers to submit their own events.

In an October 2016 interview with TEDWomen, Cullors explained what the movement means to her:

“Black Lives Matter is our call to action. It is a tool to a reimagined world where Black people are free to exist, free to live. It is a tool for our allies to show up differently for us,” she said. “I grew up in a neighborhood that was heavily policed. I witnessed my brothers and my siblings continuously stopped and frisked by law enforcement. I remember my home being raided. And one of the questions, as a child, I had was why? Why us? Black Lives Matter offers answers to the why.”

MYTHS AND CRITICISMS

People who don’t follow Black Lives Matter usually become aware of the movement when news sites report on BLM actions or protests. What many people don’t realize is that the leadership also embraces policy change and legislation as necessary elements to end oppression of Black people, and that the work and the leadership are not limited to the Black Lives Matter network.

One common misconception about the BLM movement is that it is leaderless. But there isn’t one leader; there are many. “BLM is composed of many local leaders and many local organizations including Black Youth Project 100, the Dream Defenders, the Organization for Black Struggle, Hands Up United, Millennial Activists United, and the Black Lives Matter national network,” organizers explain on the website. “We demonstrate through this model that the movement is bigger than any one person.”

Another misconception is that the movement is solely a mechanism for protest. In fact, the many people and organizations with agendas and goals that overlap and align with BLM have produced detailed policy demands and proposals for institutional reforms. Campaign Zero, for example, outlines a list of policy proposals largely focused on ending police brutality. It is a strategy for addressing one of the most visible, damaging, and deadly symptoms of systemic racism. The Movement for Black Lives, a collective of more than 50 organizations, advances a platform covering six areas of domestic-policy reform, including economic justice, investment in equitable education, and health care instead of criminalization and incarceration.

Many people, however, view the BLM movement as violent, seeking to “sow a racial divide” and intent on interrupting the work of police officers commissioned to protect and serve the public. Another common criticism of the movement is that it should be more like the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which is praised today as a seemingly perfect, orchestrated and acceptable movement. Some critics who prefer the style and tactics of that movement find it difficult to imagine that the BLM movement might actually be an extension of the work that was done in the 1950s and ’60s.

Perhaps the gravest criticism and misunderstanding of the BLM movement stems from a failure to acknowledge the conditions that created the resistance. Without an understanding of the ever-present effects of slavery and the systems that have been built to protect and preserve the devaluing and oppression of Black bodies, BLM—and any other movement for rights concerning people of color in this country—will never be understood.

The strategies and tactics of social movements are rooted in their times, so it is no coincidence that the leadership of this generation looks different and is carried out differently from the civil rights era. BLM activism boasts a great range of diversity that includes Christians, Muslims, atheists, and people of all religious and nonreligious beliefs. There are no rules that will indirectly or directly keep certain groups from participating in this movement. Additionally, the use of technology, particularly social media, has equipped the BLM movement with capabilities that allow “regular” people to be “citizen journalists.” #BlackLivesMatter has become a tool used for mobilization.

This movement for rights and humanity is growing by the day and is bolstered by the very technology young people are using. Our children need to know the facts about BLM’s role in this historical moment and how it connects with a history of social change.

BUT DON’T “ALL LIVES MATTER”?

Perhaps the most common criticism leveled against the Black Lives Matter movement is that the movement is racist because it focuses on Black people. One way to counter this notion is to point out that all lives cannot matter if Black lives do not, and to educate critics about the conditions that ignited the resistance.

All lives are connected. All oppression—including that of LGBT individuals, refugees, immigrants, Muslims, women, people living in poverty and people with disabilities—negatively affects all lives. And although the BLM movement focuses on the oppression of Black people, its mission is intersectional and invested in liberation for all.

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