While the origins of the modern Police as a construct of a long history of exclusion (either of the patriarchal polis in Greece, the watch-guards of order for the King of Britain, or Slave patrols in the Southern States) may be debatable, what cannot be overstated is that the institution of the police, past or present has struggled to be fair.
If the assassination of Malcom X and Annie Mae Aquash as part of a collaborative police effort with the FBI in the COINTELPRO projects to discredit activists of the Civil Rights Movement is too farfetched in the timeline of history, 1991 is not. A video of 25-year-old Rodney King being battered by the police would retell the narrative from what was usually a statistic of a fugitive resisting arrest into a landmark reminder of a perennial history of brutality of unarmed black men by sworn protectors of the state. But Mr. King was no freedom fighter. He was an over-speeding drunk driver naively trying to escape a fleet of patrol cars and a helicopter even though when he was clearly swamped in the full force of the police. Yet, in the land of the free, even terrorists get a fair hearing; innocent until proven guilty. However, what March 3, 1991 taught us was that sometimes, appallingly, even with the eyes of camera, justice fails to see. In America, Lady Justice is ironically blind, even with aided pixels.
Without an amateur recorder hiding behind a balcony, George Zimmerman, who was just a member of a community watch could murder an unarmed 17-year old Trayvon Martin and get away with it. His defense; Martin looked suspicious and he, Zimmerman was injured in an altercation between the two. All a man needed to kill in the free world without penance was a uniform and a loaded gun. No need for hoods.
The insurrection that followed the acquittal of the 4 police men that beat down King was enabled by the evidence of what the eyes could see. But with Martin came another evolution in the use of technology to force out justice. In 2013, it was the Facebook post of Aliza Garza, “A love Letter to Black People” that would spur the world on into new digital revolution against police violence. Aliza wrote, “We don’t deserve to be killed with impunity. We need to love ourselves and fight for a world where black lives matter. Black people, I love you. I love us We matter. Our lives matter” as her tribute to the repeated othering and commonality of unjustified black killings after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. When Patrisse Cullors, a fellow community organizer who Aliza calls her “twin” reclaimed the last few words into the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, a random rant would later charge into national cry that would redefine a new solidarity for black lives. According to a Pew Research, from the first time the hashtag was posted in July, 2013 on Twitter, it averaged about 30 posts a day till the end of the year. But what would emblazon those 3 words into a recognized symbol of the fight against police brutality was the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, another unarmed teenager killed at the hands of a male white police officer. That summer in Ferguson, a movement was born. Three years later during Twitter’s 10-year anniversary, #BlackLivesMatter was the third most used hashtag (some 11.8 million times) in relation to issues of social causes. Between King and Martin, the world witnessed how technology could give life to a quadricentennial theme of black people calling for justice to be served when it had been denied.
What made the Black Lives Matter Movement spread like wildfire was the convergence of this self-affirming cry for justice that had griped the imagination and hearts of many young people. The website of Black Lives Matter states its mission as: “To eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.” With such a noble but grandiose mission, the need for change in the social realities that intersect the daily lives of black people may be dimmed in favor of outcries at rallies. Or at least, when we have heard of Black Lives Matter in recent times, only protests came to mind. For when our voices resound on top of the clouds, even with the earnestness of our good intent, is clear that we all want same thing?
The Black Lives Matter movement is not the first time that Black activists have organized in response to police brutality yet as a voice of a new age of activists, it has crescendoed into a collective community of online and offline army of advocates for equality. As Garza put it “…in our communities, black trans folk, gender-non conforming folk, black queer folk, black women, black disabled folk — we have been leading movements for a long time, but we have been erased from the official narrative”, insisting that the are no lines between the racial and gender issues that pervade America, and beyond.
Few miles away from America is a country that anti-black racism is often denied as non-existent. Canada has an international reputation for tolerance and diversity. Indeed, Toronto is touted as one of the most multicultural cities in the world. This makes it easy to hide behind the epithet of the polite Canadian. The threat of this culture of denial is that, perpetrators can continue to maintain the status quo of white privilege and supremacy while further minimizing black lives.
Canada and many countries where the history of blacks have effaced them as second-class citizens also have their own George Floyds. Bony Jean-Pierre, a 46-year old unarmed Hatian man was shot multiple time at close range by rubber bullets, and Abdirrahman Abdi, black Somali, who witnesses attest was given severe blows to his head and neck, and died two days later are unfortunate representations of the kind of unjustified racial violence meted out to people of colour across the world. That the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to galvanize the collective misery of black people across borders against the forces of oppression, makes it one of a kind.
Yet, for all the good that the Black Lives Matter movement has done, activists often forget that the agitation of the masses and their expectation of what should be espoused as law are sometimes a far cry from what the parameters of jurisprudence can make possible. While the Civil Rights Movement was a progressive effort of decades of unrelenting appeals, it had clearly defined expectations in the face of the law. The figurative cultural precipice of the American South was not necessarily eager to ward off the chip of privilege that black discrimination had afforded it, but in the name of the enshrined tenets of the constitution, for the most part, its might was humbled. Privilege may pose as combative and domineering, but at the core, it is fueled by thoughts of a lack of possession, relevance and fragility; cultural awareness and education may display the harm it does through empathy. But opening up one’s self for reflection is a choice, and making a selfless decision to give up that privilege is an even more difficult one that most people even in the face of truth, would not make. The law, however, does not give such affordances. If a movement wants measurable change, it is certainly more attainable through the law so it is only practical that change seekers know what change the law can permit.
The magic, but also irreconcilable irony of black movements of both the glorious past and now unsure present is the quagmire of communities that can rally behind each other to advance the course of freedom from systemic racism cannot do same for itself against its own failings. This is not to perpetrate the tired ideology that blacks-on-black violence is overlooked by activists. Ultimately, the argument still remains that if black lives are going to matter, they should matter to black people and the lives of teenagers lost at the hands of blacks are no less than those by other races, for other reasons. If the psycho-socio-politico-economic underpinnings of the black community’s history does not stop it from aggregating itself against police brutality and other forms of racial violence, the argument that some history has tied the hands of blacks to responsibly account for their failings should be retired too. The mantra of the Black Lives Matter movement demands that it asks black people to be responsible for black lives from all people, black people included.
In the end, the movement is still young and still has time to mature. We may be tempted to juxtapose the legacies of movements past to Black Lives Matter, but this would be both premature and unfair. If history has thought us anything, it is that the fight for freedom for black people has been both in a spectrum and a continuum. Movements intersect with our distinct realities to create diverse shades of effects for different kinds of people, even in the same black community, along the lines of status and economic power. Oprah Winfrey although black may not comprehend the living conditions of a woman her age somewhere in the suburbs of Arlington. And the needs and requirements of freedom in 1964 cannot be compared to that of 2020.
Whatever freedom is, it means different things across separate ages. If we agree to accept the Black Lives Matter movement as a manifesto on black dignity across the world, what the movement should answer on behalf of all of us is that as black people, what should freedom look like in 2020? Moreso, what should freedom look like in 2050, and later years? It is crucial that our quest for freedom seeps into the imagination of the future because naively black people after a jolt of success from a long history of oppression, allow a latency a silence — a period of relaxed activism or altogether ceased, perhaps to catch our breath, and in the aftermath of our slumber arises a leviathan of prejudices. In recent memory, this leviathan is called Donald Trump.
In 2016, black voter turnout declined dramatically to 59.6% after reaching a historic high of 66.6% in 2012. After a binge of black “first-of-first” honorees in history, starting with Barack Obama’s presidency, the results of the 2016 elections showed that the risk of black people falling into a “fallow” period, after a harvest of victories continue to stagnate our progress in this fight.
The Black Lives Matter movement since the tragic murder of George Floyd has revamped into not just an American dirge but a global rise against violence and police brutality. It is almost evil to speculate that the movement gains its momentum from the death of more black people. But, if it doesn’t, when people get tired of marching on the streets, what would it have achieved? And if it achieves anything, for how long till a victory in an Obama, begat another Trump? And now that we are no more marching on the streets, what is next?