The Missing Word in the Black Lives Matter Movement

Like many of us, I’m deeply wounded by the regular enactments of violence in the United States, no matter the color of the victim or the perpetrator. In the days before the Dallas police officers’ shootings, I had passed along a post on Facebook that read “Stop Killing Black People.” Those simple, powerful words captured my feelings of compassion, hurt, outrage, indignation and sorrow at all once, and I shared it with my Friends. For me, the senseless killing of black men—fathers, brothers, sons, nephews, lovers, husbands, teachers, friends—needs to be addressed. Sharing that simple post was a gesture of my solidarity with some 40 million black families in the U.S. who fear their loved ones may not make it home at the end of the day.

As is often the case, social media is an unpredictable medium; my message had an unexpected impact. To my dismay, a white male from my church rebutted my post with the comment, “Stop Killing Cops.”

Rendered temporarily aphasic by my hurt, outrage and indignation to his accusatory retort, I’ve finally found my voice, again, and have come to see this an opportunity to speak to the rampant apathy I witness daily. Owing in part to the diverse circles in which I am fortunate to move by virtue of my identity as a Latina immigrant with “black skin,” my status as a well-educated professional and representing half of an interracial couple with numerous white in-laws. In short, I mix with lots of different people, who mostly don’t share my ethnic, political or educational experiences. From this unique intersectionality, a liminal reality of sorts, I observe, hear and receive explicit and implicit messages. This access is a great privilege, which I value. It gives me contact with people like the elder in my church, who happens to be in my social network and responds to my ideas.

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This exchange of seven words has weighed incongruously on my mind and disproportionately on my heart. In the weeks of quiet contemplation since the exchange, polarized by emotional extremes, vacillating between a desire to lash out at a perceived attack or to turn the other cheek, I saw an opportunity for transformation—not, a simple solution, to un-Friend, defend or ostracize, but to embrace, engage and accept the pain on the surface, to unlock the heart of this matter that touches every American of every color, religion and class. We are one coin, locked together in a struggle that neither side can win without destroying the other. When perceived threats make hate acceptable, masked emotions allow us to escape the compassion we all desperately need.

A brief glance at our history reveals that when early European emigrants settled the continent, later brought Africans to the U.S. as free laborers, and followed that up with by rebellion against the Crown, they created a legacy of freedom and justice for all of us. Many of our Founding Fathers, who had themselves trafficked in black lives, had not foreseen the benefits of their quest for freedom, their brazen Declaration of Independence, on present generations. In the Declaration of Independence lies the keys to our contemporary worldview: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration further asserts the rights of citizens to speak and act out against tyranny, in any form: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it… organizing its powers in such form, as to… effect their Safety and Happiness.” This clue shows very clearly how our eloquent Founding Fathers based their progressive ideology on the notion that “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object… is [our] right, is [our] duty … to provide new Guards for [our] future security.”

It’s safe to say that our Founding Fathers valued happiness, liberty and security enough to fight for it. And, as we live and mature with this creed, a new, modern-day iteration of those values is born: the anthem of “Black Lives Matter,” a challenge to the unspoken, yet oft demonstrated, idea that black people are here to be exterminated, under-educated, incarcerated, experimented upon, discriminated against and stereotyped. The Black Lives Matter Movement asserts as definitively as the Declaration of Independence that black people matter, to ourselves, and to the collective well-being of our nation. A pervasive, knee-jerk response by many white Americans to the mere utterance of the statement “Black Lives Matter,” exudes the entitlement engendered by centuries of unchallenged, unnamed and un-owned privileges. (With a full pantry, it’s easier to scoff at beggars.) The perspective that only certain lives are valuable is in direct opposition to the founding values of our nation. We all have an inalienable right to life, justice and the pursuit of happiness.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution suggest, however subtly, that despite all the evidence to the contrary, black people are not disposable. Black Lives Matter, too.

My initial reaction to the thoughtless rebuttal of my church-elder FB Friend was anger, followed by a deep grief for the implications of such a reply—to “Stop killing Cops.” His response implies that because I don’t want to see black men shot down on the street with impunity, I am necessarily in favor of killing police officers. No. No. No. To be clear, Cops Lives Matter. And, Black Lives Matter, too.

Another possible interpretation embedded in his response is the odd notion that all police officers are white (a likely holdover from slavery, when they would have been) and, therefore, by design, to forebear black lives could not or would not extend to protecting police officers. This harmful inference puts white officers’ lives above all black persons because, quid pro quo, there are no black police officers and black need not be spared. For me, wanting to preserve black lives does not require someone else—anyone else—to die.

I’m no champion of violence, regardless to whether the perpetrator wears a uniform or not.

After the brutal violence against Dallas police, and having processed my own personal pain, disbelief and grief, I witnessed a nation surround the slain officers’ families and friends, raising money, paying respect, and rightly so, coming together around the communities that have been injured. People of all ranks, colors, religion and class gathered together to pay tribute to the lives of the fallen officers—their lives mourned for all the world to see. It was evident in the public outpouring of support and the displays of genuine affection that “blue lives” matter. And, Black Lives Matter, too.

Each time we, as a society and people, incur violence, I marvel at the balance of public sympathies. Why don’t we feel the same for the many innocent black victims of violence? Who is weeping for them? Who is paying their funeral costs? Why isn’t the response to these deaths always compassion? To me the lines should be softer—blurred and intertwined around the common loss of fathers, sons, children and contributing members of society. Who is grieving with the parents, spouses and children of black people?

We are one nation. And, Black Lives Matter, too.

After two centuries of enforced slavery of millions of black people, making the U.S. one of the wealthiest superpowers on the planet, we’re at a new apex of blatant disregard for and indifference to black people, their utility seemingly exhausted in contemporary society. Even with Jim Crow publicly challenged and ousted in two decades of Civil Rights activism, practices associated with slavery and Jim Crow persist in altered and insidious forms; to ignore them is to betray the values of free speech and unflinching truth that I see as a citizen’s duty and service to community, country and God.

Black people, at least, can no longer look away from the bloodshed. We, as a nation, should not be able to turn the compassion on for white victims of violence and shut compassion off for black victims, not without recognizing a deeply ingrained prejudice against black people, a legacy rooted in slavery and oppression. I find strength in the foresight of the Founding Fathers, whose Preamble necessitates moral agitation in the face of injustice: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It is for these many reasons that the time has come to drop the clever platitudes that many believe will absolve them of the responsibility to stand for what is right—for “justice,” for “domestic tranquility,” for “the general welfare,” and “the blessings of liberty” we all deserve. That is why when I hear, “Black Lives Matter,” I automatically add a silent, “Too.” Because it is now time that the lives of black people should matter to all of us, who have benefited from the sacrifices of a people whose blood, sweat and tears made this country what it is—for all of us.

In this light, the Black Lives Matter Movement does not seek to diminish the value of any human being, but to my eyes, only strives to assert the humanity and validity of a people, who endure daily enactments of discrimination and oppression in their own country. They demand the elusive dignity and inclusion in the American Dream that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled to obtain a century after Emancipation. This movement is a rallying summons for the inalienable right to happiness, a happiness, which cannot take root with the torrents of grief heaped upon the community for this long. That is why this particular lament is so poignant and disruptive to all Americans. The power of the Black Lives Matter Movement is rooted in an undeniable truth, one that niggles the conscience of ordinary people, who would rather dismiss the validity and urgency of the matter and carry on with the status quo. I suspect that all the people unified around the Black Lives Matter Movement, this moment in history, are as eager to claim the birthright of human dignity, as they are to share in the spontaneous appeal of the collective heart represented by the words,

“Black Lives Matter, Too.”

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