Black Lives Matter: A Challenge to Power

Source: New Internationalist

Black Lives Matter and a new generation of activism has the potential to reawaken the global fight for black liberation.

‘I’m eight years old, I’m unarmed and I have nothing that will hurt you.’ Ariel has rehearsed this line. She looks into the camera as she says it, holding her hands up, her feet dangling from her chair. Her father, who sits beside her, explains that, at home, they practise how to deal with the police.

During the short video, other black American parents describe how they teach their children ways to react to the police, which include how to try to stay alive when confronted with the people paid to protect them.

It’s difficult viewing, but these parents are not prepared to take any chances. Of the 987 people killed by US police in 2017, nearly a quarter were black. Twelve were under 18.

The assault against black people, perpetuated by the police and by others, has brought a renewed urgency to US anti-racist campaigning and has sparked a global response that enough is enough – for black people everywhere.

Grief and anger

The turning point came six years ago when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, as he walked from a local shop to his father’s house in Florida. The death provoked protests worldwide as people demanded Zimmerman be prosecuted.

‘If the police continue to kill black men and women with impunity, the kind of urban rebellions that shook American society in the 1960s are a distinct possibility. This isn’t the 1960s, but the 21st century – and with a black president and a black attorney general serving in Washington. People surely expect more,’ wrote Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at the time, as the wait continued for Zimmerman’s arrest.

On 11 April 2012, more than 40 days after he killed Martin, Zimmerman was charged with murder. On 13 July 2013, he was acquitted by a jury invoking the stand-your-ground law, which allows people to use force to protect themselves against real and perceived threats.

Following the news via social media in Britain, Martin’s killing, and the reaction of the state and press, stuck with me. It was a stark reminder that being black reduces how people value your life and your right to live it – that my male family members could be seen as threatening because of the colour of their skin and that other people would consider such a reaction justified.

I wasn’t alone. In Trayvon Martin – an unarmed teenager wearing a hooded top, headphones and carrying sweets – black people around the world saw their sons and brothers. A July 2013 poll found that 87 per cent of black Americans said the shooting was unjustified, while just 33 per cent of white people felt the same.

Over 90 per cent of black Americans voted for Obama in the 2008 and 2012elections, but a black man in the White House was not going to undo hundreds of years of racism in a society built upon the foundations of slavery.

Martin was one of many black people killed by supposed upholders of the law during the Obama administration, representing, as Angela Davis wrote in 2014, ‘an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extra-legal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan, to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes’.

Race was still a major factor in how every part of black Americans’ lives panned out. For example, between 2009 and 2012, as the US began to crawl out of recession, the income of black households declined by nearly 11 per cent (compared to a 3.6 per cent decline for white households).

The collective grief and anger which spilled over after Martin’s death brought fresh energy to civil rights activism. After the news of Zimmerman’s acquittal, Alicia Garza – an activist in Oakland – took to Facebook, writing: ‘There’s a section of America… cheering and celebrating right now, and that makes me sick to my stomach… I continue to be surprised how little black lives matter.’ Los Angeles-based Patrisse Khan-Cullors reposted Garza’s words, adding the social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and the two joined with New York-based Opal Tometi to spread the message across social media, building what would become Black Lives Matter, a campaign network of over 40 chapters across the US. It would also become a rallying cry around which a new generation of civil rights activists throughout the world could act.

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