The movement by hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, was born following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. But the momentum shifted markedly after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson by Police Officer Darren Wilson.
Since then, a series of killings by police of young black men, from Eric Garner to Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Samuel DuBose, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald and others, have accomplished something that decades of allegations, before there was video to eliminate the inherent doubt, failed to do. Cops kill blacks without justification and in grossly disproportionate numbers. One can quibble over details, but there’s no argument to be made that the body in the street isn’t dead.
Video gave rise to traction that never before existed. It’s not that it didn’t happen before, but that no one believed it. Video changed that. The excuses didn’t work when we could see for ourselves that they were lies.
For those of us who were constrained to argue to judges that the impossible was real, that sometimes cops just killed for no good reason, this changed things. Not everything, as the dead were still dead, but at least it was undeniable that the usual excuse (“why would a cop do such a terrible thing if he didn’t have to?”) was no longer good enough.
And after the killing of Michael Brown, people took to the streets of Ferguson to protest. And that too was caught on video, showing how police used weapons to try to silence, if not arrest or kill, the protesters. What happened in Ferguson captured the American consciousness, in large part because everyone saw it. In large part because it offended our fundamental belief that the protesters were exercising their rights as Americans to protest. In large part because of free speech.
Black Lives Matter became a movement all people of good conscience could support, and there was, for the first time ever, a consensus that the killing was happening, that the killing must stop.
And then, it started to fall down the rabbit hole. If I was inclined to wear a tin foil hat, I might surmise that evil forces infiltrated the movement, to morph the message from black lives to black feelings, to transgender feelings, to trivial, infantile feelings.
Sorry, kids, but you’re fucking this all up, and somebody has to tell you because you aren’t getting this on your own.
First, there was the usurpation of Black Lives Matter by college students, who couldn’t distinguish between dead bodies in the streets and the hurt feelz of the privileged at Yale, Princeton, Mizzou and all those other colleges where wannabe protesters started whining, “me too, me too.” No, not having a safe space set aside for delicate students of color is not the same thing as Tamir Rice being gunned down in a park. No, the name of an American president on a wall is not the same thing as Eric Garner being asphyxiated on the street for the loosie lie.
While the Black Lives Matter movement was organic, there were also three women who decided they were in charge of it when they bought the URL and credited themselves with ownership (under a tab called “herstory”). Their mission included black lives matter. It also included transgender matters, women matters, ageism matters, and all things warm and fuzzy.
We are committed to embodying and practicing justice, liberation, and peace in our engagements with one another.
Sounds nice. But then there’s video, the same video that gave life to the movement that morphed from an issue that grabbed a nation by its throat to the myriad unrelated issues that had nothing to do with black lives mattering. If this was a government conspiracy to destroy support for Black Lives Matter, it couldn’t have been executed better.
Then again, those who decided to seize the hashtag for their own purposes didn’t need much pushing to destroy it. Because video.
The existence of a serious movement to save the lives of black folks from being killed by police cannot happen without free speech. The cops didn’t want the nation to watch your protests in Ferguson. They don’t want you to see videos of them mowing down young black men in Chicago. They want to silence your speech.
And you want to silence speech too?
The movement is no monolith. No one was elected Queen, and no “chapter” was authorized to make Black Lives Matter all about racially segregated puppy rooms. The actions in the video at Cal State Los Angeles do not reflect what people risked their lives for walking the streets of Ferguson while police sharpshooters atop armored vehicles had their body mass in their sights.
But when they use the hashtag, the name, as their excuse to not only silence speech, but employ force in doing so, the good will, the public outrage, the opportunity to finally end the presumption that every black is a criminal, that a black person isn’t worthy of surviving an encounter with a cop. So they undermine the legitimacy of the movement.
Movements are hard to control. People are hard to control. But speech? That’s easy. You need it. I need it. We all need it, if we are to be able to speak out against the government. The vitality of Black Lives Matter demands free speech. The Black Lives Matter movement should be at the forefront of free speech, for without it, you disappear.
When someone, some group, tries to silence free speech in your name, they destroy everything you’ve accomplished. Don’t let them destroy a movement. Free speech matters, and Black Lives depend on it.