Black Lives Matter Means: Black Lives Matter
Black lives matter. Without qualification. Without exceptions. Without any ifs, ands, or buts.
Black Lives Matter came into prominence as an expression following the lynching of Trayvon Martin by a vigilante in Florida. Lynching is a topic that runs as a very deep thread in US history, and is defined as killing a person for an alleged offense without a legal trial. In the Jim Crow era, lynching was part of an organized campaign of terrorism targeting the black population, predominantly in slave states.
Lynching and other forms of terror and repression drove millions of black refugees to northern urban industrial centers*, where they were eagerly accepted by industrialists ever seeking lower cost laborers with little political clout. They moved into urban refugee camps called “ghettoes” that had previously been built to house refugees from Ireland, Italy, and other troubled parts of the world (and who had also been eagerly welcomed by US capitalists in search of low cost labor). But unlike those who came before them, black refugees who fled southern white terrorism failed to be accepted and integrated into the broader white communities in the north, and fell into a perpetual poverty trap. Lynching followed them north.
Police have always been involved in lynching, either as direct participants (acting officially or unofficially) or accommodating the practice by “looking the other way.” So when a cop attacks and kills a black man for an alleged offense without a legal trial, it strikes a deep and horrible chord inside many Americans who have not forgotten the legacy of lynching, nor its persistence to the modern times. That single act of lynching George Floyd represents so much more to us, it would take thousands of books to convey all of the meaning that we understand in that one instant, all of which is deep inside our cultural history and context, containing the tales of many thousands of lynchings over US history.
The fact that it resonates so strongly explains why literally millions of people have taken to the streets across the US in protest after the lynching of George Floyd, in spite of a deadly pandemic.
However, as usual, there are still many who do not seem to be in tune with this history, for whom these events do not evoke empathy. For whom the statement “black lives matter” cannot be accepted on its own, and requires qualifications, exceptions, and a string of “ifs, ands, and buts.” And because there are a substantial number of such people, it unfortunately means that history tends to repeat itself.
To start, many police forces in the US do not appear to be in tune with this dark history. Worse, those who have the power to direct police departments and policing strategies at all levels of government also do not appear to be in touch with the longer thread of history and how their policies play out in the arc of history. And official lines of arguments made by all of them to motivate these policies and to defend the practice of lynching continue to use the same kinds of victim-blaming arguments that were made over a century ago in the deep south. In the worst case, states adopt “stand your ground” laws that legally permit lynching if the murderer claims to have felt threatened by the victim.
Policies of aggressive “high contact” policing of black communities, which set the stage for police lynchings today, cannot be sustained without the implicit and/or explicit support of a broad base of the (mostly white) citizenry who hold the reigns of political and economic power. This public support base falls on a broad spectrum. Some are driven by deep hatred of those who are being persecuted, but these hardened racists will rarely speak about their sentiments openly (although some do, they are just the tip of the iceberg). Then there are those who are driven by fear, accommodated by ignorance, and are easily manipulated into going along with the prevailing wind of racism. And there are also those who do understand the history well enough to subconsciously wince, and know that they have amassed a terrible karmic retribution over centuries of enslavement, apartheid, and terrorism.
As a white man who was raised in the US, I don’t think that anyone falls into tidy little categories, and there is much variety in the motivations and manifestations of racism that ultimately express collectively as a racist society.
I have the sense that just about all white people in the US have a deep fear of justified (long) overdue black vengeance for centuries of terrible crimes actively committed and/or passively facilitated by the white majority. This is the same fear that modern white Americans inherited from their enslaving ancestors. And perhaps this fear explains why the white majority responds with such ferocity and violence to any signs of a black uprising. Seeing black protesters fill the streets is enough to raise their level of dread, and news reports of looting and arson take it up another level (the dreaded “race riot”). When white people feel this way, they are less likely to feel empathy, and they become more willing to support the kind of stunning acts of police repression and violence on their fellow black citizens that we have seen play out over and over again across the US.
What we’ve seen recently in the violent police response to protesters following the lynching of George Floyd is the systemic manifestation of a collective animal that feels like it could be backed into a corner, and ready to lash out and commit stunning acts of brutality, an emotional state of sheer terror in which sentiments like remorse simply do not exist. Of course, white society is hardly at risk in the US, and this severe reaction at just the slightest hint of upheaval reveals just how afraid they really are. Isn’t it strange that white fear of retribution of their own past atrocities continues to be a driving force for continued atrocities today and perpetually into the future?
So long as these fears are kept brewing beneath the surface, and the police are co-opted to be a state manifestation of reaction to these fears, then militarized police repression and lynchings will continue. It does not matter if the US “abolishes police” because the root disease still remains. Instead, white America is still in desperate need of a long overdue reckoning with its past, a deep examination of its persistent fearful posture, and measures that will mitigate their recurrence in the future.
*Euphemistically referred to in US history as the “Great Migration,” as if there was anything “great” about mass refugee crises spurred by terrorism.