In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement began with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. Black Lives Matter became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African Americans: Michael Brown, resulting in protests and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.
With each incident, the Black Community was encouraged by authorities, the victim’s families, and even the President of the United States, to not let their anger boil over into violence, and instead to take a wait and see attitude while the police completed their investigation and for prosecutors to decide whether to charge the police to no avail. George Zimmerman was charged and tried in the Trayvon Martin case but found not guilty. A grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown and a New York grand jury refused to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo (who administered the choke hold) in the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner.
So the Black Lives Matter movement grew out of frustration in the Black Community because young unarmed African American males were being killed by the police (or in the case of Trayvon Martin, a wannabe police) at an alarming rate with impunity. Many wondered how could this happen over and over again without recourse? So the Black Community and other fair minded individuals did the only thing that traditionally gives voice to the voiceless, and that’s taking it to the streets (i.e. protest).
A recent article by Julia Craven of The Huffington Post reported that U.S. police killed at least 258 black people in 2016, according to a project by The Guardian that tracks police killings in America. Thirty-nine of these people were unarmed. Four were killed by police stun guns and another nine died in custody, a continuing problem in American jails. But the majority of black people killed by police were fatally shot.
Based on a tracker from The Washington Post, at least 232 black folks were shot and killed. (The Guardian’s figures include all deaths resulting directly from encounters with law enforcement, while the Post counts only people who were shot and killed by police.) The Post found that 34 percent of the unarmed people killed in 2016 were black males, which is quite disproportionate since black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population. There was also a considerable uptick in deaths caught on camera via cellphone and police cameras.
These statistics make a person wonder what’s wrong with this picture, how is it possible that black men are killed by police at a rate 28 percentage points over their percentage of the U.S. population. These killings are perpetrated by the same people that are sworn to protect and serve. Some people blame this on a lack of training, others say it's bad cops, others say that only if the person had followed instructions none of this would have happened, or that black people are criminal by nature or just angry people who cannot control their impulses. To continually blame the victim is not justified by the numbers nor is it borne out by video footage and eyewitness testimony. No one seems to want to talk about another obvious factor that being “prejudice.”
Definition of prejudice - Merriam-Webster dictionary
1 : injury or damage resulting from some judgment or action of another in disregard of one's rights; especially : detriment to one's legal rights or claims
2a (1) : preconceived judgment or opinion (2) : an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge b : an instance of such judgment or opinion c : an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics
Could prejudice be a plausible explanation for this phenomenon? I believe it is most likely that prejudice plays a role in many of these officer involved shootings and killings because most of these killings involve white police officers. Nina Strochlic of The Daily Beast reported that young African Americans are killed by cops 4.5 times more often than people of other races and ages.
Whether we as Americans want to face it or not, prejudice is pervasive in our society. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but prejudice did not end in this country with the election of our first black president. I hope it is the fear that “White Americans” have of not wanting to be labelled prejudiced that causes us as a society to not be able to have constructive conversation around the subject or find plausible solutions, and not that they just don’t care.
This fear of facing the reality of prejudice can be found in society’s belittling of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Instead of embracing the message and meaning of the movement and seriously considering it, people would rather poke fun and belittle it. It irks me to no end when I hear people say things like, “All Lives Matter” which goes without saying and totally misses the point. Or “Blue Lives Matter”, “Dogs Lives Matter”, or any other “_______ Lives Matter” you may see on the latest bumper sticker created to poke fun at or vainly protest the movement.
Trayvon Martin (17), Michael Brown (18), Jordan Edwards (15), Tamir Rice (12), Cameron Tillman (14), VonDerrit Myers Jr. (18), Laquan McDonald (17), Tony Robinson (19) all children killed by police before they could legally drink in most states. How about these young lives, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins impacted by these tragedies? Remember these are real lives being lost. Where is society’s compassion and empathy? Black lives do matter.
This article may not convince readers to support the “Black Lives Matter” movement, but hopefully it will make people consider it.
Rev. Ken Curl is an associate minister, critical thinker and community activist. He loves to volunteer for children’s causes and is a member of the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches, USA. (Picture above is from thefreethoughtproject.com and was chosen by the editor of this blog.)