In 2021, it’s nearly impossible to talk about Black humanity, Black pride and Black resilience without positioning the Black Lives Matter movement — a Black-centered movement to combat violence and systemic racism — at the foundation of the conversation.
But the perception has never been a unilateral one — even as recent as just a couple months back.
The Black Lives Matter movement in late 2020 was labeled a terrorist organization by a prominent law enforcement training group with inaccurate claims that the movement “aims to overthrow the U.S. government.”
Republicans have also done their best to compare the Black Lives Matter movement to the violent mob of President Trump supporters and white supremacists who stormed the Capitol building on January 6.
“Riots should be rejected by everyone, every single time,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said. “Now, are the left hypocrites? Absolutely. I remember what they now are calling ‘insurrection,’ they were justifying just this summer.”
“They’re not interested in Black lives, they’re interested in props,” former Attorney General William Barr said last summer as Black Lives Matter protests took place nationwide. “A small number of Blacks were killed by police during conflict with police -- usually less than a dozen a year -- who they can use as props to achieve a much broader political agenda.”
Trump as a presidential nominee in 2016. called the phrase “inherently racist.”
“It’s a very divisive term, because all lives matter,” he said. “It’s a very, very divisive term.”
Despite the vitriol from opponents, Black Lives Matter has outlasted fear-mongering and willful ignorance to become a mainstream identity for some, and a purposeful lifestyle for others. A network of individuals and chapters who center Black livelihood for a better world for all have acquiesced a global movement.
Protests, spurred by the police and white supremacists killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, have taken place in more than 60 countries and six continents. Then last month, the Black Lives Matter movement was nominated for one of the most highly coveted awards in the world, the Nobel Peace Prize, marking an evolution eight years in the making.
"BLM's call for systemic change have spread around the world, forcing other countries to grapple with racism within their own societies," Petter Eide, a Socialist Left member of the Storting, Norway's parliament said in his nomination letter.
For Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of the movement, Black Lives Matter means something “different every single day.”
“I believe Black Lives Matter is an imaginative freedom portal,” Cullors told Yahoo News. “It allows us to dream our biggest dreams for not just Black people in this country, but Black people around the world.”
Today, the message of Black empowerment is spreading in waves. The momentum is building. But none of this came easy. To assume that the movement was made overnight would discount the sweat equity and blood that so many activists and forward thinking Black nationalists sacrificed for years before 2021.
On February 26 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Black teen, was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman after a brief altercation.
The next year, following Zimmerman’s acquittal, and three radical Black female organizers — Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Cullors — created a movement to “support the development of new Black leaders, as well as create a network where Black people feel empowered to determine our destinies in our communities,” called Black Lives Matter.
The phrase "black lives matter" was first used in a Facebook post by Garza after the acquittal; and later, Cullors recognized the power of Garza's words and created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Thus the campaign was born.
“We have created the possibility for this country to finally reinvest into Black people and our neighborhoods and the communities that we come from,” Cullors said. “We must live in a world that really does center abolition. [One that] centers the care and dignity of human beings.”
In the subsequent years from the movement’s inception, hundreds of Black lives were taken by police officers and white supremacists and thousands of demonstrations evolved from social media resistance to resistance in the streets.
In 2014, protests and marches followed the police killings of several Black Americans, including John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice, among others. But no two deaths captured the attention of the country, and world, more than those of Eric Garner and Michael Brown Jr., both killed by police officers.
In July, Garner was put in an illegal chokehold by a New York City police officer and died after the officer attempted to arrest Garner for selling loose cigarettes. The following month, in August 2014, Brown Jr. was shot and killed by Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson after Wilson was allegedly responding to reports of a robbery and assault at a nearby convenience store.
Several months of nationwide unrest and protests followed both deaths as Black Lives Matter activists called on the officers involved to be held accountable. Bush attended demonstrations for Brown on the second night and continued showing up for more than 400 straight days.
Founded in December of 2014, the Movement for Black Lives, or M4BL, a coalition of more than 50 groups representing the interests of Black communities across the U.S., sprang up as another vehicle to transform the Black Lives Matter movement in a systematic and unified way.
“The Movement for Black Lives means that Black people actually have a right and a responsibility to demand what we've always deserved, not just what we concede to,” Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, a M4BL Activist, Highlander Research & Education Center Co-Executive Director and a leader with The Frontline told Yahoo News. “It gives us a place to dream together about what a world, that is good to Black people, would look like in actual practice and hope.”
In tandem with that hope came the reality of violence against Black lives that continued.
In July of 2015, nine Black church worshippers were killed during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., by 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof.
Later that month, Sandra Bland, a Black woman, was found hanging in her jail cell; just three days earlier she was stopped and arrested following a traffic stop. There were more questions than answers in Bland’s death. BLM organized throughout the year, and more specifically for Black women and Black transgender women, who were increasingly becoming victims of deadly violence. By the end of the year, 21 transgender people had been killed in 2015 in the U.S., a record number at the time, and 13 of the victims were Black.
In July 2016, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two Black men, were shot at point blank range by officers in separate incidents. Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, La., by two white officers as they pinned him down. Castile, a licensed gun owner, was killed by an officer in a suburb outside of St. Paul, Minn., as he raised his hands after the officer allegedly told him not to move.
More than 100 protests around the country followed these killings. Professional sports athletes also began to speak out more prominently. NBA superstars LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony during the ESPY Awards in July 2016, said, “Enough is enough.” Then in August, Colin Kaepernick became the first NFL athlete to protest systemic racism and police brutality during the national anthem by taking a knee. Other NFL athletes would later follow.
Over the next five years, more Black lives were taken by the hands of police and more protests in the name of Black Lives Matter took place in the streets.
A Pew study published in 2018 found that by May, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter had been used nearly 30 million times on Twitter since the first instance in 2013.
In 2020, Black Lives Matter became a household phrase globally following the killings of Arbery in Georgia, Floyd in Minnesota and Taylor in Kentucky.
Arbery was shot and killed by three white men while jogging in Brunswick, Ga. Floyd was pinned to the ground and had a knee pressed into his neck for more than seven minutes by a Minneapolis police officer for allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit $20 bill. Taylor, an EMT, was killed after officers, serving a no-knock warrant, broke into the apartment she shared with her boyfriend and opened fire.
The culmination of each of these deaths sparked international Black Lives Matter marches from the U.K. to New Zealand. Corporations and elected officials alike, many for the first time, began to understand why the term “Black Lives Matter” is necessary, and Black Lives Matter murals began popping up in all corners of the globe.
Bush also ran for Congress in 2020. Bush’s father, Errol Bush, is an alderman and a former mayor of Northwoods, a small city in St. Louis County. Bush watched him run for office every couple of years and running for office was something she had sworn off early in her life, but after Ferguson, something changed.
“When I was asked by an activist, who has just been murdered, to run for office, initially, I said, no,” Bush recalls. “But then when I thought about it, how did we get the heart of the people that were out there on the ground for more than 400 days in rain, sleet, hail, snow, hell no, we won't go? How do we get that heart after they were beat up, beat unconscious, arrested and then made it back out there to the street? How do we get that heart that love for the community into federal office? The only way to do it is to run.”
Cullors believes the power of the movement is in it’s duality.
“The power of Black Lives Matter has really been about being able to both be a protest movement and a movement that's deeply involved in politics,” Cullors said. “We have used protest for the last seven years to challenge the status quo and now it’s our time to get people in office that we believe will stand up for Black lives when they take their seats.”
“Rep. Cori Bush exemplifies what it means to be a leader, a protest leader, an organizer, and taking the seat and not stripping away where she came from,” Cullors added. “She continues to show up over and over again, reminding everybody, that not only is she a proud Black woman, but that she is from St. Louis and she represents the most marginalized people of St. Louis.”
On January 3, Bush was sworn in as the first Black congresswoman of Missouri. Three days later Trump supporters and white supremacists, under the false pretense that the 2020 general election was rigged, stormed the Capitol building in an attempted coup. Bush feels like that could have happened at any time, but it happened during her time — and it took her right back to Ferguson. It’s something she doesn’t take lightly.
“My team and I were locked down in our office,” Bush said. “I never felt like I was about to die or that I could die in that situation. What I felt like was I'm ready like this. This is what we've been doing out there on the ground. ... I'm thinking to myself, I'm ready.”
“It was like, where are my boots? And my bandana,” she said. “You hit these doors, we'll do our best to keep you out. But if you hit these doors, I'm banging until the end. That was my thought process. Like you're not just taking me out, I'm banging to the end because they took me right back to Ferguson until the streets.”
In many ways Bush epitomizes the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2014, she protested in the streets on behalf of Black lives and in 2021 she continues to fight for Black lives in Congress.
“This is work and relationships and infrastructure that's been built for generations,” Henderson, of the Highlander Center, said. “[With Bush in office], it makes it possible that we actually can demand again, what we deserve. Which is to expel the members of this treasonous caucus that were working and colluding with white supremacists to stop this transition of power.”
Black Lives Matter isn’t slowing down, but neither is radical white supremacy and other wild conspiracy theories. This year in addition to Bush coming into office, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon-aligned candidate from Georgia, was elected to office.
Bush had a well-publicized confrontation with Greene in January over the latter’s refusal to wear a mask in a public space in a House office building. “She targeted me & others on social media,” Bush tweeted. “I’m moving my office away from hers for my team’s safety.”
A Greene spokesman later accused Bush of being the instigator and released a video of Greene on the phone without a mask and someone yelling at her to put a mask on.
But the Missouri Democrat’s larger concern is with Republicans who are attempting to put the horrifying violence of Jan. 6 behind them.
“If they choose not to love, respect, honor, and fight for humanity … they need to find another job,” Bush said.
As Black Lives Matter approaches its 8th anniversary, there will certainly be more demonstrations and undoubtedly there will be more hashtags, but there are also more elected leaders in Congress to hold the power structures steeped in white supremacy accountable.
“Even though I understand that it is not on me or the Black and brown community to dismantle white supremacy,” Bush said. “The white community, that's their work. But because we're here, we're going to fight it tooth and nail.”
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