“The one thing I remember from that evening, other than crying myself to sleep that night, was the way in which as a black person, I felt incredibly vulnerable, incredibly exposed and incredibly enraged,” said Alicia Garza, one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, to The Guardian back in 2015. This night signaled the darkest turn in modern America’s story. The night of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Mountains of evidence and racial motives aside, Black America waited with baited breath for 16 hours as the jury deliberated on whether the shooting was justified or not. He walked away without a blemish.
Previously, when 17-year-old Martin’s life was stolen, former president Barack Obama issued, at the Rose Garden, perhaps his most racially-charged statement of his time in office. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” The brief, emotionally-revealing comment came hidden within a statement looking to bring peace to the nation whilst revealing that he wasn’t holding his own black card too close to the chest. But he didn’t have this same luxury once the law of the land’s verdict reached the ears of the dominion. His tune, when addressing the public after the verdict, was grim, but traces of restrained anger could be extrapolated from his words. “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America,” the statement reads. “I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.” For as much as even Obama wanted to act, the laws that gifted him control of the ship prevented him from participating in deck problems.
Alicia Garza left the bar that she’d been viewing the final verdict at and exhaustion weighed over her to the point that she was on the brink of weariness. Not the physical kind from overexertion, but the mental, emotional baggage that comes with dealing with forever being less worthy. The shit show that black Americans deal with on a daily basis, yet can’t do anything about, because the country wasn’t designed with black lives ever holding relevance in the first place, 242 years ago. History classes may tell you that slavery ended in 1865 and that segregation and discrimination came to an end in 1964, but the hateful, racially-charged mindsets that permeated these times still exist.
Garza arrived at home, bereft with heavy emotions, and took to Facebook to talk to, and only to, the black body. Her heartfelt, passionate message ended with: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Near immediately, her words began to spark passion in both friends and other people sharing their exhaustion with existing in this space. Close friend, and community organizer for prison reform, Patrisse Cullors, shared her passion and anger, spreading her message while using the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, shorting Garza’s message down to the three words that, for the last 1,500 years or so, have gone misunderstood. When they reached out to Opal Tometi, another fiery activist in the field of immigrant rights, to help breathe air into the growing movement, it became more than a slogan on social media —it became the first glimpse of a utopia from hell on Earth.
The constructions of black lives were beginning to draw attention from other blacks that shared experiences previously not collectively organized, so much of the incidents that transfixed communities never made it to the national level. But now, stories were being told and people were listening. Tumblr and Twitter, two platforms that give users the ability to explore narratives with words, bled with the movement’s hashtag and empowering statements and stories of why black lives mattered.
In October of 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton would have been ecstatic at the idea of Black Lives Matter. The racial travesties that we deal with in contemporary times come with solidarity and understanding from like-minded individuals; but in the racially-charged era of post-civil rights America, tensions were higher and teamwork was decidedly less. Police brutality that had become even worse for African Americans after the Civil Rights era beckoned swift change from angry recipients of hate from white America. Originally christened the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the organization was founded by young urban blacks searching for economic and political power in ways that the Civil Rights movement couldn’t guarantee for its people. The way that it would gain respect would be to forcefully extract it from the carcasses of hateful law enforcement. Armed citizens would patrol Oakland, California, clad in the deepest of blacks, appearing as the symbolic representation of death that they administered. Bleak violence such as Huey Newton’s alleged killing of Officer John Frey in 1967 and Eldridge Cleaver’s ambush of police officers led to the party getting the ominous, fearful edge that provided African Americans with similar mindsets to fuel the group’s ascent.
By 1970, the group had 68 offices across the country. They were the villains to white America—Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover, at one time, referred to them as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”—while heroes to the black community. Though it dwindled in membership due to internal strife and violent tendencies that reached a frenzy point, by 1982, the party was largely nonexistent. Its lasting legacy being that black Americans weren’t going to roll over and accept a lesser existence ; in conjunction with the Civil Rights movement, no matter what the circumstances, blacks would willingly fight against racial injustice whether with words or with weapons.
Black Lives Matter picks up at the intersection of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panther Party’s own focus. Instead of guns, phones are used to attack police brutality and oppression by modern-day members, with the determination to even out the scales of equality being the uniting factor between all three groups. The structure of BLM is decentralized and incorporates not just blacks, but anyone that identifies with the message that’s being translated. Yes, all lives hold equal meaning. But black lives, the ones that are regularly pit at a lower stoop than others, matter. And for that, we’ll scream to the top of the mountains.
Besides direct protesting action, one convention available to current protestors that wasn’t available to either of BLM’s ancestors is the use of the internet to infiltrate the media — mainly social media. When a large percentage of traffic comes from social media, it’s safe to say that it rules over the popular domain. Successfully translating a message through it means that it can spread farther and faster. Black Lives Matter holds mastery in this facet with, in 2016, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” being tweeted a total of 30 million times up to that point. Currently, according to a recently released Pew study, the hashtag is used nearly 17,000 times per day. Its focus on social media and direct action extended to the 2016 election, with both Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton incorporating discussions about the group’s message into their campaigns.
As it stands currently, Black Lives Matter has become a cultural phenomenon that has infiltrated the very backbone of society. The problematic events that continue to showcase a bleak future for racial relations in the world continue to happen and, at every corner, the group rears its head, ready to combat. It’s also sparked an increased interest in activism itself, showcasing that peaceful protest that may not have achieved the desired effects years ago can work today to increase awareness of important situations.
The work of an organization determined to increase the peace has shown the importance of the African American life in the United States, as well as the larger world around it, and brought a sense of closure to the activist groups before it. The benevolent work of Civil Rights leaders was often at odds with the more hands-on approach of The Black Panther Party, but through the passionate work of Black Lives Matter activists, both sides are equally translated through them, resulting in what will be the proper course of action for the community in the long term. Thanks to Black Lives Matter, the world, although still hesitant, will grow to understand what blacks have been trying to explain for years.
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