This week marks two years since the origin of the movement and slogan #BlackLivesMatter. Born after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, it's been used around the world -- although not always as its creators intended. Patrisse Cullors is one of three co-founders of Black Lives Matter, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. She speaks with Brooke about how she came to put the hashtag in front of the phrase, and how its meaning has changed.
Frail as a Breeze Part 2 - Erik Friedlander
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BLAND: And I'm not calling all white people racist, because y'all not. But for the ones who wanna get on my page talkin' About “all lives matter”-- Show me in American history where all lives have mattered.
BROOKE: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, Bob Garfield is out this week I’m Brooke Gladstone.
This week, another suspicious death in police custody, another trending hashtag. Sandy Speaks. Sandra Bland often posted videos on Facebook about racial justice and police brutality under the rubric “Sandy Speaks.” Driving to a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, she reportedly failed to signal a lane change. A state trooper in Waller County, Texas pulled her over, and then arrested her for allegedly assaulting him. In a bystander video, she’s seen on the ground, shouting that the trooper had slammed her head on the ground so hard, she couldn’t hear. Three days later, she was found hanging in her cell. Suicide. Inconceivable, said her family and friends. The FBI is moving in to investigate. This is from one of her videos.
BLAND: Show me where there has been liberty and justice for all. white people: if all lives mattered, would there need to be a hashtag for black lives mattering? Think about that. Just truly think about that. Yes, black on black crime numbers are extremely high. Yes, they are. But that is because there are uneducated people who are hell-bent on self-extermination. I am not one of them. I am into building up my kings and queens. So for me, black lives matter. And then, subset, all lives matter. Take it or leave it. Sandy Speaks.
BROOKE: This is a summer of grim anniversaries. It’s a year since Eric Garner died from a police chokehold in Staten Island, a year since Michael Brown was shot by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Black Lives Matter - the movement and the hashtag -- is two years old this week. Born after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, it’s become a slogan used around the world … although not always as its creators intended. Patrisse Cullors is one of three co-founders of Black Lives Matter, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. When the not-guilty verdict was announced late on Saturday, July 13th, 2013, Patrisse Cullors learned about it on social media.
CULLORS: I paused in shock, and probably 30 seconds later just started crying. If this person, who was just a regular person, could kill a young black boy and get away with it, who else could do this and what did this actually mean. It was this moment where I understood that this was an urgent matter and if we didn't deal with it, if we didn't respond, it would be a missed opportunity.
BROOKE: And how did Black Lives Matter emerge from that?
CULLORS: A lot of black folks went to social media just trying to vent and make sense of what we just witnessed. Alicia Garza wrote a love note to black people that affirmed our lives and our value, she closed off with "our lives matter, we matter, black lives matter." I right underneath it hashtagged "Black Lives Matter". The words Black Lives Matter just continued to reverberate within me, and I sent her a Facebook status and I said, "twin" - cause that's what we call each other - "I think we're onto something - we should create a Black Lives Matter platform, both online and offline."
BROOKE: But as it's grown, it's also morphed, and it's spawned other hashtags: Migrant lives matter, women's lives matter, brown lives matter. You see this as a problem, right?
CULLORS: Yes. We have 26 chapters across the country and one chapter inside of Toronto, Canada. It isn't just a hashtag. The hashtag has a set of guiding principles that we've created for our network, It was birthed from three black women in particular who had a very specific politic around Black Lives Matter, and we think when we alter the hashtag it actually dilutes the messaging and it's just not creative. And we think that taking you know the Black Lives Matter Hashtag and adding your own isn't original. We think there could be much more creativity to how we build solidarity.
BROOKE: Hey you sound like that old guy who says get off my lawn!
CULLORS: No, not at all! I think in front of the hashtag i say all Black Lives Matter. We started saying all Black Lives Matter when we noticed that people were only talking about Black Lives Matter as black men who are being killed by law enforcement. Black people are trans, black people are queer, black people are prisoners. Black people exist in every sector of society and you can't just narrow our understanding of who is actually black. We've called on non-black communities to utilize Black Lives Matter to interrogate how you've been impacted by anti-black racism. So you'll see hashtags like Asians for Black Lives.
BROOKE: So the playing on it like that is good.
CULLORS: Yes because it's an act of solidarity, versus trying to imitate or at worst, like all lives matter, an act of trying to erase.
BROOKE: Right - these willful appropriations of the phrase that question its premise -
BROOKE: - the All Lives Matter, White Lives Matter...
CULLORS: Police Lives Matter.
BROOKE: Did that response surprise you?
CULLORS: I'm not surprised by people's need to hold onto the past. But I'm disturbed by it. Why would one want to hold onto a narrative that is about the violation and destruction of a particular group of people. Right now the focus is law enforcement violence, but let's not hold it there. Across the country different people have taken up Black Lives Matter to discuss issues of labor and the black community, utilizing Black Work Matters. You've seen people talk about the killings of black trans women - Black Trans Lives Matter. It isn't in the mainstream as of yet, but it's in people's consciousness that this is about a larger conversation.
BROOKE: But it's harder to organize around an issue like homelessness or lower graduation rates. It's a lot easier to organize around a police shooting or a trial or a lack of a trial.
CULLORS: But, I'll say, 10 or 15 years ago it was very difficult to get media to discuss law enforcement violence in the way that is. So mostly it takes time, and I think we can't allow ourselves to become narrow in how we discuss and how we practice Black Lives Matter.
BROOKE: You've also observed that this issue itself has centered around male victims at the expense of attention to women. There was Renisha McBride, killed in November 2013 when she sought help after a car crash in a Detroit suburb. Tenisha Anderson of Cleveland who died in police custody last year after being restrained. Rekia Boyd in Chicago who was killed in 2012 by an off duty cop who thought he saw a gun that wasn't there. Those names are rarely mentioned - why do you think that is?
CULLORS: We know that black men are the lead victims and so I think what happens is people run with that narrative, they run with the narrative of saving young black men. Earlier this year, we put on actions with black youth project 100 #SayHerName, really calling on the country to stage protests just like you would for black men, also for black women.
BROOKE: What change, if any, have you seen in the past two years since you first put that hashtag in front of Black Lives Matter?
CULLORS: I've seen so many changes - I've seen people reorient and reorganize their lives to fight for black lives. I've seen elected officials say black lives matter; I've seen the entire country try to deal with issues of state violence in ways that I've never witnessed in my lifetime.
BROOKE: Patrisse, thank you very much.
CULLORS: Thank you so much.
BROOKE: Patrisse Cullors is one of three co-founders of Black Lives Matter. She’s also founder of ‘Dignity and Power Now’, an organization for incarcerated people and their families.