Editorial: Three short words and a long struggle

Sunday, September 17, 2017

More than 100 people gathered in Claremont’s Broad Street Park on Tuesday, some of them holding signs that read “Stand Together,” “Teach Love Not Hate,” and “Black Lives Matter.” It was a community response to news that a group of local boys, all of them under the age of 15, had attempted to lynch an 8-year-old biracial boy.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could be offended by people uniting to stand against bigotry, hatred and thoroughly disturbing violence, but these are strange days. The Valley News reported that one passer-by shouted: “All lives matter. Every single life matters. Stop making it all about race.” Another called Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization.

We know that a lot of people here in New Hampshire agree with those sentiments. We see it in letters to the editor and in online comments. We hear it from people who swear that their opposition to Black Lives Matter doesn’t have anything to do with race because they have black friends or work with black people or have black relatives, as if proximity is the same as understanding. And they are offended that anybody would say “Black Lives Matter” when of course “All Lives Matter.”

But “Black Lives Matter” has never meant “Only Black Lives Matter” or “Black Lives Matter More.” The phrase that would first become a hashtag and then a movement can be traced back to a Facebook post by an activist named Alicia Garza following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter,” she wrote. “And I will continue that. Stop giving up on Black life.”

Then Tamir Rice was shot by police in Cleveland. Then Eric Garner was choked to death by police in New York City. Then Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo. Then Freddie Gray was killed by police in Baltimore. Then Philando Castile was shot by police in St. Paul, Minn. There were many others, too. More often than not, black lives have not mattered in America.

There are many great things about the United States, but racial equality has never been one of them. For every step forward – the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the election of the first black president – there has been a regressive, often violent, racist backlash. All the while, and up to the present day, institutional racism has been foundational in America.

To better understand the meaning of “Black Lives Matter,” consider the analogy that became popular on Twitter as the devastation of Hurricane Harvey became clear: “It’s too bad about Houston, but all cities matter.” If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. “All Lives Matter” as a rebuttal to “Black Lives Matter” is even more so.

Despite the claims of Rush Limbaugh and others who make a comfortable living peddling fear, Black Lives Matter isn’t a terrorist group. The movement is purposely decentralized and loosely organized. It is part of a long struggle for equality that encompasses health care, education, criminal justice, employment, and other life-defining matters of social and racial justice. The street protests that follow acts of state-sanctioned violence against black people – the protests that are recorded by cable news outlets and played on a loop for days and sometimes weeks – don’t begin to tell the story of the struggle.

If you want that story, read about slavery, lynchings, disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, segregation, racial bias in health care, income inequality, racial profiling and the mass incarceration of black men in America – for starters.

At the very least, everybody should make an effort to understand why white people and black people alike might find it necessary to hold up a sign that says “Black Lives Matter.”