A friend of mine was conducting a diversity class for a group of police officers, mostly White, in a northern Ohio city. All was going well until he said, “Let’s talk about ‘Black Lives Matter.” He said the room exploded.
The officers were offended that he would bring up the hated term. They began to shout out, “Blue Lives Matter,” and offered their belief that the Black Lives Matter Movement is happening because Black people want to kill police officers.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We must say “Black lives matter” to remind ourselves in this society that has dehumanized and criminalized us, that we do, in fact, matter, that we deserve better than what we have gotten in this country that we helped build.
Yes, the attention has concentrated on state-sanctioned violence meted out against Black people by police officers and vigilantes, with none of the offenders being held accountable. Black people – many of them innocent of any crime – have been hauled in front of all-White juries and unsympathetic White judges, made to pay for crimes they did not commit and for which they should never have been arrested. White violence against Black people has largely been supported by law enforcement – from the destruction of entire cities, including Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Fla., to the terrorist attacks on Black lives and property by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, many members of which were White law enforcement officers.
Just recently I read the book Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson, which recounted the murder of Henry Marrow in Oxford, N.C. in 1970 by three White men. The entire town knew the men who had been accused of the murder were guilty, but they were acquitted, and a town full of Black people was left to try to lick its wounds and carry on. It was clear that Marrow’s life didn’t matter, and neither did theirs. That kind of injustice has been the history of Black people.
But it hasn’t just been injustice within the justice system that has told us that our lives do not matter. Any reading of Jonathan Kozol’s books, describing the conditions of public schools in urban areas, leaves one breathless seeing and reading about how bad it is for little Black children, in schools that often have little to no heat in the winter, no air in the summer, second-hand books, no computers or old ones at best …One’s heart breaks as Kozol, who was a teacher in these schools, tells the stories of what it is like to be a Black kid in America.
Health care for Black people is often substandard, with physicians often giving less than enthusiastic and complete attention to those who can afford health care, forcing many to end up in emergency rooms staffed by young White wanna-be doctors who hold just as many misperceptions of Black people as many police officers. Black people are not given the same level of care for chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. A former member of my church years ago went to the hospital for a stomach ailment and was sent home with strong psychotropic drugs. My own daughter, afflicted with food poisoning, was prescribed a blood thinner in a Detroit hospital.
Our neighborhoods do not have good play spaces for our children, an unfortunate reality because parents are often working two, three jobs to make ends meet and are not home and the result is a lot of crime caused by restless, young, inquisitive children who have nothing else to do but be on the streets and seek a “family” there.
It’s not just our experiences with police.
One of my biggest beefs is to hear anti-abortion proponents say they are “pro-life.” I shudder because many to most of these activists are White, middle-class women who do not care a hill of beans about a fetus carried to term, and especially if that fetus comes from a Black mother. They do not care that these children are headed for lives of poverty and pain, with inadequate education, food, health care and access to justice. Those things are what make life worth living; the pro-lifers do not, cannot or will not make that connection.
We have to say “Black lives matter” to remind ourselves that complacency and acquiescence to injustice is not an option. The phrase is a phrase of self-affirmation, just as much as was the phrase, ‘Black is beautiful” in a world and society that had designated anything that was not Eurocentric as being deficient and inferior.
A few activists might be heard on the streets saying, “kill the pigs,” but they are very few. It feels like more kids – and mostly White ones at that – said “kill the pigs” during the student unrests of the 60s. No, these Black Lives Matter activists are fighting for their rightful place. They are saying that Black LGBTQ lives matter, that Black children matter, that Black women matter, that the health, education and welfare of Black people matters just as much as for White people. It is a cry against racism and state-sanctioned violence against Black people, for sure, but it is also a statement of strength and self-affirmation.
Rev. Susan K Smith is an ordained minister who lives in Columbus, Ohio. She is the author of several books, including “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives” and “The Book of Jeremiah: The Life and Ministry of Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. She is available to preach or do keynote addresses. Reach her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org