Black Lives Matter: The Movement, The Myths, and The Moment

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by Graham Ball ’21

I watch as a heavily armored police officer standing on the steps of Cleveland’s Justice Center takes careful aim and fires a teargas canister into a group of protesters. The canister strikes a middle-age African-American man in the head, and blood pours down his face as protest medics carry him away. It’s May 30, 2020, and I am moving among the clouds of teargas, washing the eyes of protesters who have fallen victim to weapons outlawed by the Geneva Convention. I see an object thrown toward me from the police lines and I instinctively avert my eyes. There is a tremendous bang as the stun grenade explodes where I had been standing just moments before. For hours, the police have been firing rubber and wooden bullets, teargas, bean-bag shotgun rounds, and pepper spray at Clevelanders seeking justice for the murder of George Floyd. 

As a privileged white man, I cannot speak for the communities of color which face the most oppression at the hands of America’s militarized police forces. I cannot speak to the black experience of fearing for your life during every police interaction. I encourage readers to seek out accounts from African-Americans about their experiences with police, including police on Kenyon’s campus. That said, this summer I learned firsthand about the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality. I want to convey what I’ve learned and dispel some enduring myths. 

WHAT DO WE WANT? JUSTICE!

Black Lives Matter is the largest civil rights movement in American history. This summer, tens of millions of people have protested in about 2,500 cities and towns across America. Founded in 2013, after the murder of Trayvon Martin and the aquittal of George Zimmerman, Black Lives Matter started taking off during the Michael Brown protests in Ferguson. The Black Lives Matter movement has capitalized on the work of Black liberation scholars who have identified the structural inequalities and institutional racism rampant within America’s criminal justice system. The rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” focuses the issue on the state-sanctioned murder of Black people, while chants of “Tamir Rice! Say his name! Brianna Taylor! Say her name!” emphasize the humanity of those killed by the police and the personal connection many communities have to the movement.

 Black Lives Matter was created to be a decentralized, leaderless social movement. Like Occupy Wall Street, the movement didn’t want to be co-opted by a single leader who could sell it out or unilaterally change its goals. By shirking leaders on a national level, Black Lives Matter avoids ad hominem arguments and character assassinations, instead forcing opponents to engage with the movement’s substance. Unlike Occupy, BLM has a consistent set of actionable demands which give the movement clarity and direction. In 2016, Movement For Black Lives (M4BL), a group of fifty organizations representing thousands of African-Americans nationwide, released six demands: end the war on Black people, economic justice, divest-invest, community control, political power, and reparations. Though all six points are important for Black liberation, the BLM movement this summer has focused on two of them: End the war on Black people and divest-invest.

Divest-invest is most commonly known by the slogan ‘defund the police’, which has been heavily criticized for its lack of specificity. Partly because of this vagueness, it has often been misunderstood. As M4BL articulates, it is a demand for “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people.” This means investing in policies that address the root causes of crime. It also means not having armed officers responding to every 911 call. Denver is trying a new program where a mental health professional and a paramedic respond to nonviolent 911 calls instead of police. Since June, the unarmed team has been deployed to more than 350 situations and has never needed to call for backup. To many in the BLM movement, this is what defunding the police is all about. 

I watch as a heavily armored police officer standing on the steps of Cleveland’s Justice Center takes careful aim…

The war on Black people, which M4BL is calling to end, is a well-documented de facto police policy. Police have killed an average of 1,000 people a year over the past five years, murdering Black people at four times the rate of white people. One in three Black men are arrested before they turn 23. Black women are the demographic most likely to be killed while unarmed, while fully half of Black trans women will be incarcerated in their lives. This is institutionalized racism and state-sanctioned racial violence. Former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg says he ordered heavier policing of Black neighborhoods because “that’s where the crime is,” but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When cities heavily police majority African-American neighborhoods that are underserved by social services, they generate horrifying statistics like these. To solve these problems, M4BL calls for the end of the war on drugs, the abolition of private prisons, defunding law enforcement on all levels, the end of surveillance of Black communities, and for investments in education, affordable housing, living wage employment, public transportation, and accessible health care, including community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment.  

WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!

The goals of Black Lives Matter are neither unreasonable nor unattainable. While cities were quick to paint murals on their streets, governments at every level have instituted almost no real change. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s much heralded defunding of the NYPD was little more than budgetary sleight of hand. In Minneapolis, a group of 10 unelected officials removed a referendum from the ballot which would have dismantled the MPD and replaced it with community-focused public safety. At the national level, Democratic congressional leaders took a knee wearing appropriated kente cloth for a photo op but have yet to pass any meaningful legislation. The Democratic nominee for vice-president is a former prosecutor who worked diligently to ensure harsh penalties for nonviolent offenders and actively blocked efforts to release falsely imprisoned Americans. 

All these reactions show that Democratic politicians are saying “Black Lives Matter,” patting themselves on their backs and calling it a day. But new Democratic faces are appearing on the national stage, like Cori Bush, a pastor and activist who got her start during the 2014 Ferguson protests. Bush recently defeated a Democrat who had been in congress for 20 years. I am hopeful that, if Democratic inaction continues, electoral change will follow. Black Lives Matter is showing its ability to convert the raw people power of the movement into political capital. Part of that political project is dispelling the pervasive myths about BLM. 

NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE, NO RACIST POLICE

Many people claim to support Black Lives Matter and then in the same breath will condemn the rioting and property damage they see as associated with the movement. There are several problems with this. According to a new study by the US Crisis Monitor Project of Princeton University, which defines violence as bodily harm or property damage, 93% of BLM protests are entirely peaceful. In my experience, it’s often law enforcement that incites and escalates violence. As reported by Cleveland.com and Cleveland Scene, on May 30, Cleveland police faced no significant threats from the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators and gave no dispersal orders before they chose to illegally attack the crowd. In early June, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Ohio State was killed by Columbus police teargas. In Portland this July, protests were petering out before Trump’s militarized federal agents came to the city and reignited conflict. So, contrary to how the protests are portrayed in the media and by right-wing politicians, most of the time Black Lives Matter is not a violent movement. It is treated with violence by law enforcement.

What violence does occur is also misunderstood. After the burning of the Minneapolis 3rd Precinct Police Station, Mayor Jacob Frey proclaimed, “The people that are doing this are not Minneapolis residents. They are coming in largely from outside of the city, from outside of the region.” USA Today fact checked Frey and found the vast majority of protesters at the precinct fire and those who were arrested were from the area. Yet, the myth of the “outside agitator” endures, and understandably so. It makes it easier for politicians to ignore the demands for change. The myth disenfranchises the authentic rage of communities of color, and it has done so for decades. Blaming “outside agitators” is the same ploy used by segregationist sheriffs in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s, who claimed it was strangers from the North, like the Freedom Riders, who were causing the riots, not the citizens of their towns and cities. They would assert that the Black people in their communities were fine with segregation. As Martin Luther King Jr. said “A riot is the language of the unheard.” And at the end of the day, the people chanting “Black Lives Matter” by the light of the burning 3rd Precinct were Minneapolis residents. 

Many commentators and politicians from both sides of the aisle are calling for more police funding in order to do diversity training. The problem is that more training for police officers doesn’t work if the culture of the department is toxic. No “training session” will make an impact if the officers involved don’t care or take it seriously. As it stands, most police training revolves around use of force. When an officer enters a stressful situation they will default to the tool they’ve practiced using the most: their gun. When you’re trained to use a hammer, everyone looks like a nail. 

“But it’s just a few bad apples,” people say, “most cops are good people who’ve never killed anyone.” I do believe that there are good police officers who join the force in order to make a difference in their community. The problem is that Fraternal Orders of Police, police unions, use good cops to cover for the ones who regularly brutalize members of the community. According to the University of Chicago, instances of police violence increased by 40% when police were allowed to unionize. When a police officer does lose their job, which is very rare and requires obvious evidence of wrongdoing, half of them are reinstated after union arbitration. The Police Chief of Philadelphia once complained that 90% of the officers he fired have returned to police work. 

Not only do police unions keep bad apples in uniform, they also block reform. Mayors who try to change policies on policing in their cities face such aggressive opposition from police unions, that most will not even attempt reform. One policy that police unions are desperate to defend is Qualified Immunity, which protects police from being sued for violating constitutional rights. In practice, this policy protects officers who break the law while on the job. Organized labor is crucial to the functioning of democratic society and ensuring that workers have a decent standard of living, but police have a job that gives them the authority to kill people in the street. They must be held to a higher standard. Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, had 18 official complaints leveled against him. The police union protected his job and an innocent man is dead. Police unions actively block any attempt at reform or discipline and therefore they must be abolished or at least heavily regulated. Until they are, all police officers–good and bad–are responsible for the epidemic of police brutality. 

HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT! 

Kenyon College is not immune to the scourge of racially biased policing. Undocumented students have been stopped on Middle Path while crossing Chase Ave and harrassed by the Sheriff for their papers. According to The Collegian, a golf cart of Black Student Union alumnaes was pulled over on Middle Path last fall, where a deputy challenged their right to drive on the path. One has to ask:, why does Gambier pay the Knox County Sheriff to abuse Kenyon students and alumnaes of color? Thanks to the work of the Kenyon Black Student Union and the village council, Gambier has reduced the number of deputies patrolling the village from two to one and from 80 hours per week to just 40. This is excellent progress. However, any changes made to the way that the deputy acts on the job or is trained to act must be approved by the Knox County Sheriff. In order to have real control over the actions and discipline policies of the officer who patrols our streets, Gambier will have to terminate their contract with the sheriff’s department and hire our own law enforcement officer. 

What other steps can we take to be an anti-racist campus? We need to read more authors — both in our curriculum and in our personal study — like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, Michelle Williams, and Ibram X. Kendi. How can we claim to understand oppression in America when we haven’t read the preeminent scholars on the subject? Historical context is key. White-supremist actions like Red- Lining and the 1921 violent destruction of the Black Wall Street have major impacts on minority communities to this day. It’s not enough for the Kenyon community to not be racist. We must be actively ant-racist to work to undo hundreds of years of oppression. 

One way to be anti-racist is to spend your money with intention. Next time you are about to Google something to buy, consider adding ‘Black owned’ to the search. Instead of going to Amazon for my latest notebook, I found one on shoppeblack.us. It cost the same amount, was just as convenient to purchase, and instead of lining Jeff Bezos’s pockets, I supported a Black woman with a small business. Just as it is our civic duty to vote in elections, we have an obligation to vote with our wallets. 

FISTS UP, FIGHT BACK!

The system isn’t broken. It’s working exactly as it was intended. The police officers who murdered Brianna Taylor are still walking free. Qualified immunity still protects bad police officers and bad police unions from the consequences of their actions. Black people are still being killed by police in the streets of every city in America. Contact your representatives and ask what they are doing to end police brutality. Hold your elected officials accountable at public meetings and at the ballot box. Attend the next Black Lives Matter demonstration in your town. Remember those who have lost their lives to police violence. Get active and stay active. Policing in America cannot be fixed unless we continue to demand change. Black lives matter. 

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