Photo by Audrey Browning
Feels: It Doesn’t Matter That Black Lives Matter Makes You Uncomfortable
A little over two weeks have passed since the Rally Against Police Brutality by Black Lives Matter Austin that resulted in police equipped with riot gear arresting six protestors. Enough time for reflection after seeing the subsequent media coverage and social media response, as well as talking with friends and strangers about what happened.
My biggest takeaway? The BLM movement is misunderstood.
I went to the rally as a media bystander, with intentions to record the event on Snapchat for burnt x. But when “White Silence = Violence,” I can’t pretend to be objective. As one of my professors taught me in my first journalism class at UT-Austin, objectivity usually means maintaining the status quo and maintaining the status quo puts you on the wrong side of history. I don’t think the BLM movement is controversial. And so I chanted along.
But many do consider the movement contentious. They dwell on the name, dismissing it without taking the time to understand the meaning behind it.
The terminology of “Black Lives Matter” serves a distinct purpose:
It addresses the problematic existence of an oppressive system that disproportionately devalues black lives.
The activist movement was created after the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Two years later, the list of black lives taken by law enforcement that faces no consequences grows longer.
Unfortunately, the tense relationship between police officers and black communities isn’t the only area of concern. From prisons to schools, BLM speaks out on the various aspects in American society where institutional racism lingers.
In contrast, what purpose does “All Lives Matter” serve, other than undermining “Black Lives Matter”? It goes without saying that all lives matter. But until all lives are treated like they matter – on the streets, within the judicial system, in our schools – we must focus on those lives that are being threatened.
As we started our march, we encountered a group of people that showed up to wave “Jesus Matters” signs at us. Why? Do these people feel threatened? Do they think of BLM as a violent movement? What are you really saying when you show up to a “Black Lives Matter” event to say “Jesus Matters”? Instead of listening to the voice of BLM, mantras are being formed to compete for the spotlight. Not only is it counterproductive, it’s offensive.
Just as men are welcome to participate in feminist discussion, people of all races are encouraged to get involved with BLM. Police brutality isn’t a “black issue” just as rape isn’t a “women’s issue” – we should all be concerned.
Here’s a comic that illustrates the ridiculousness of countering with “All Lives Matter.”
After YouTube videos surfaced of the confrontation between officers and protestors at the Austin rally, looking at the comments brought angry tears to my eyes. Similar to the critical rhetoric that spread after Ferguson riots, the tone was hateful and victim-blaming. This is a lesson in the societal consequences of gate-keeping, the way in which information is filtered and presented to the public. The fundamental nature of local television doesn’t allow the medium to dedicate a lot of time to each individual story. A couple of seconds of b-roll of chanting protestors blocking traffic, coupled with a police interview, and what’s the implicit message? “They got what they deserved.”
When traditional news outlets do interview protestors, that footage usually doesn’t make the final cut. Local Austin videographer and self-proclaimed “artivist” Jacques Gerard Colimon was right there. He captured the moment of confrontation between officers and the peaceful but enraged protestors, putting together this in-your-face short film about the reality of what happened. In his words, “Watch. Listen. Learn.”
Black Lives Matter is a modern day civil rights movement, and civil rights movements are messy. People within the movement who strive for the same ultimate goal disagree about the right way to evoke change – radical versus strategic, working from within the system or pushing against it. At the rally, speakers got behind the mic and expressed different opinions. Some asked black people to come up front and white allies to stand behind. A black girl I spoke to weeks later told me she thought that was a silly request; she came with her white friends and didn’t like that she was being asked to stand separately from them.
On the other hand, white allies at the same rally were encouraged to participate in die-ins: powerful visual demonstrations where people lie down on the street for several minutes while the names of victims of police brutality are called out. In other cities, the set-up has been different in the past: Only black people laid down, while white allies surrounded them in solidarity.
The national movement is decentralized, with chapters all over. There’s bound to be disagreement about method. However, this messiness does not take away its legitimacy. The bigger picture of its cause is just.
Tension between police officers and this nation’s black population is deeply engrained, making this piece relevant months – even years – from now. Black people don’t trust police officers to offer them the same protection granted to white people.
To address police brutality, there has to be a shift in the conversation we’re having about race in the United States. The tide is turning, but there’s been pushback: defensiveness, criticism and flat-out denial that a race issue even exists.
We need to listen to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s understandable that where there is injustice, there is anger. Not all police officers are monsters, but the system they represent is a broken one. I may not personally agree with all the chants or strategies at the rally, but I will not dictate the “appropriate” or “smart” way in which policy brutality victims and their families should express themselves. That is not my place.
My place is to educate myself about historical oppression. My place is to understand desperation, not discredit a protest for blocking highway traffic for a few minutes. Most importantly, my place is to listen, even if what I hear makes me feel uncomfortable. Yours should be too.