Why “Black Lives Matter” Matters

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013, shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Since that time, hundreds of African Americans have been shot by police officers (and many White, Hispanic/Latino, & Native Americans have also been shot). Tens of thousands of African Americans, in this same time, have had interactions with police officers, many that involved a disproportionate use of force (based on police records). For those who do not study criminal justice, social justice, or the history of injustice in America, it is easy to assume that because police have so many interactions with Black People, then Black People must be committing more crimes. But this is not the case. White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than any other group. Surprised? You shouldn’t be; White People make up more than 60 percent of our nation’s population. So if there are more White People, than Black People (by a nearly 5:1 ratio), and according to the FBI statistics, White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than Black People, why do we see greater use of force against Black People and greater incarceration rates of Black People? This, in part, is why Black Lives Matter exists.

To understand more fully why the Civil Rights Movement has been reenergized, we must have a better understanding of African Americans’ history in the place we call America. 400 years ago, this continent was inhabited by many Nations of First Peoples, and a few Dutch, French, English, and Spanish, amongst others. As the population of settlements grew, the need for “hired” help grew along with it. In 1619, Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia (against their will), to work the land; along with the labor provided by European indentured servants, the building of a nation had begun. For a short time, Africans were looked upon as being similar to the indentured servants, save for their religious practices, language, etc. However, it wasn’t long before the European nobility/landed class began to differentiate in their treatment of Africans (and first African Americans) and European laborers.

As slavery took shape in the Colonies, it differed from slavery in other places (and this is really important for everybody who likes to say “Black people owned slaves in Africa before White People owned slaves in America” (which wasn’t yet “America” when slavery started)). That is true; in different Kingdoms various forms of enslavement were practiced. However, many historians that have studied slavery on the continent have found no evidence supporting the idea that the chattel form of slavery practiced in the New World, was practiced in Africa. And chattel slavery, as practiced in the place that would become the United States, was about as severe a practice as one could imagine.

Chattel is another term for “property”. This means that the enslaved Africans and eventually African Americans were property. They had absolutely no rights that had to be honored by any White man. The enslaved were bought and sold just as cattle, horses, molasses, tobacco, etc. were bought and sold. And, when enslaved women had children, they were not born free, they were automatically enslaved—for life. People who had no knowledge of this country were ripped from their families and communities and shoved into a new place where they were stripped of their names, their customs, their religious beliefs, and their sense of self. They were “housed” in small shacks with dirt floors, made to toil in physically demanding work from sun-up to sun-down (whether in a field or in a plantation house), provided just enough rations to sustain their strength (most of the time), and almost never had the opportunity to remove themselves from this hell. Then, to make matters worse, after adapting and overcoming the initial chaos of that existence, and having started new families, getting married, having kids, doing what they could to make their life less painful, they were shocked back to reality.

The plantation owners didn’t care about inhumane treatment (the enslaved were considered sub-human/property); if the plantation owners were having “difficulty” with some of their “property”, difficulty that could not be fixed through the usual methods, they might sell that “property” to a plantation that could be five miles away or five states away. They also sold off “property” if they were in a bind for money or were offered a particularly good deal for one or more “pieces of their property”, or if the mistress of the plantation didn’t like a particular enslaved girl that her husband had taken a liking to (in other words, rape, repeatedly, until she was sold off or killed, or the husband grew tired of her and turned his affection to a new “piece of his property”). All of this, and more, had the effect of breaking up families—again. And with each new dissolution of a family unit, African Americans had more reason to hate not only the system of chattel slavery, but also the purveyors of that system, to include the enforcers of the laws and the patrols that existed to police them.

This period of our history, that included State sanctioned extreme violence against human beings, is the low point for us, as far as Humanity & Civility are concerned. Chattel slavery, in this land, lasted for 246 years. It was a terrible stain on our nation and if that was the only event that the African American community were forced to endure, it would be enough. But it wasn’t.

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After the Civil War, the South underwent Reconstruction. This period lasted for approximately 14 years, 1863-1877, and witnessed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (and other hate groups), the suppression of Black votes, even though the 14th amendment granted citizenship and equal protection to the newly freed, and the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all male citizens (while women continued to work for this right for the next 51 years), lynching, and general lawlessness, carried out by White People who could not stomach the thought of Black People being treated as equals. After Lincoln’s assassination, things got worse.

At the beginning of Andrew Johnson’s Presidency (1865-1869), he vetoed the bill that would have enacted land distribution to thousands of Freedmen. This act, in concert with the 13th Amendment’s allowance for enslavement as punishment for crimes committed, and the new Black Codes that, amongst other things, made vagrancy a crime, served to put the recently “out-of-work”, back to work. What this meant for millions of newly freed Americans, who had little or no money (because enslaved people aren’t paid wages), is that they could be arrested for not having a permanent home. This worked out quite well for the plantation owners (who were also involved in politics, i.e. helped write these laws) as they were in dire need of labor. The law enforcement of the county would pick up Freedmen who were out on the road (they might be looking for family, looking for work, surviving), arrest them and then send them off to the fields to work, without pay—again.

In 1877, Reconstruction came to an end and Jim Crow (the set of laws governing what Black citizens were and were not allowed to do) was fully implemented throughout the postbellum South. Jim Crow laws acted as a barrier that prevented African Americans from taking part in the full spectrum of America’s democratic process, economic opportunities, educational opportunities, and social interactions with White folk. What this meant was that in a matter of less than 15 years, the vast majority of African Americans had undergone two extreme status changes. From enslaved to citizen (albeit citizens who were terrorized and subjected to the Black Codes) and from citizens to 2nd class citizens, under the rule of Jim Crow. Progress? Yes. Enough? No.

The next era in our history was defined by the Supreme Court’s mandate of Separate but Equal. The 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson made it lawful to discriminate (under the guise of equal accommodations) based on skin color. After a series of Supreme Court victories, Brown v. Board of Education struck down the Separate but Equal doctrine by stating the obvious, it is “inherently unequal”. This, however, did not put an end to Jim Crow. Over the course of the next 15 years, many States and individual school districts would fight the Court’s order to integrate (some never would) and many of the more affluent (and even less affluent) White families moved their children to private schools (where no Black students were to be found). But in the North everything was fine, right? So why didn’t all the Black People just move north? Well, it wasn’t always de jure segregation across the North and the West, though that existed, but it was often de facto.

The North had it’s own way of keeping White and Black apart. Restrictive housing covenants, redlining, destroying communities with public works projects, employment difficulties (last hired-first fired, unequal pay for the same work, unable to join unions, etc.), and violence against Black workers, to name a few. It didn’t matter where African Americans moved, they were going to face discrimination of one sort or another because of White America’s perceptions about Black People.  So after all of the work done, from 1865 to 1968 (the unofficial end of this particular stage of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement), African Americans were still not accepted as equal by large swaths of America.

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So that’s a lot of chaos to deal with (349 years worth of chaos, to be exact). Between 1619 and 1968 the Black community in America endured more hardships, more violence, experienced more senseless acts fueled by hatred, than any other group—(not the Irish, not the Italians, not the Jews, not the Poles, Czechs, Germans, Greeks, Chinese, Mexicans, Norwegians, Russians, Scots-Irish, Indians (not Native Americans), Catholics, et al.). And this is not to say that all of those groups didn’t experience difficulties/violence, they did, but not anywhere near the extent that the Black community suffered. And yes, Native Americans suffered for a longer period (basically from the time Columbus “discovered” Asia India Hispaniola and began killing Taino & Arawak Peoples). And yes, the history of Native Peoples in this entire hemisphere is littered with the erasure of numerous Native Nations and complete disregard for the lives of other non-White inhabitants. I’m not arguing that First Peoples experiences (with White People) have been mostly positive, on the contrary; however, the fact that African Americans were subjected, daily, to being treated as 2nd class citizens, at best, sub-human at worst, for this duration, is hard to refute. And if you thought that was the end of the story, you thought wrong; it’s 2016, not 1968.

We’ve seen what can be accomplished, more or less, with amendments: the 13th, 14th, 15th, but we haven’t yet looked at what can be taken away regardless of an amendment. The 4th amendment was written to prevent the government from snooping around just because they want to. It reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

And that seems not only reasonable, but very sensible. The Founding Fathers included it as a means of preventing the same type of behaviors that the British had perpetrated against them, when they were colonists. So it is somewhat surprising, knowing the importance of our Constitution and the Rights it bestows upon its citizenry, that the 4th amendment has been significantly eroded over the past 50 years. What’s that you say, my 4th amendment rights, eroded? Preposterous! Unthinkable! This is heresy, By God! Well, here it is.

Beginning in 1968, in the case of Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court sided with the State in deciding that it was within the law for an officer to “stop and frisk” a person/persons whom the officer thought might be plotting a crime (reasonable suspicion). It sounds ok, when you first read it, but when one looks at where it has led us (with many more cases since then, expanding policing powers: Florida v. Bostick, Ohio v. Robinette, Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, etc. etc.) it might be useful to read the words of Supreme Court Justice Marshall from the 1968 case, mentioned above. In his dissent (it was an 8-1 decision) Marshall wrote, “To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.” And today, we are seeing the fruits of the Court’s labor— Stop & Frisk run amok in New York City; maybe not yet a “police state”, but one can see how Justice Marshall was correct to question this type of authority. But wait, what does this have to do with African Americans? Oh, right, that. Well, as shown by the statistics, provided by NYPD, an extremely disproportionate number (based on NYC demographics) of the individuals stopped are Black and Hispanic. Which leads us to the last issue that needs to be addressed, the war on drugs.

President Nixon thought it would be a good idea to declare a war on drugs (he had a lot of “good” ideas). Putting aside the arguments about which drugs are “dangerous” and which are “safe”, we need to understand how the drug war affected American communities, Black and White. Because while one is free to think whatever they want about any particular drug, when we look at the statistics of who uses drugs, who sells drugs, who ends up going to jail because of drugs, and how jail terms differ based on the ethnicity of said person convicted of drug use/sales, we find evidence that should make everyone question what exactly is going on in the confines of our criminal justice system.

Using data from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services) we find that drug use amongst White and Black individuals falls within a 1-2 percentage point gap, for the years 2002-2010. So that’s not why we see more Black People incarcerated for drugs. Next, we find that White People, on the whole, are more likely to sell drugs and more likely to be arrested for selling drugs, than Black People; data from studies done in 1980, 1989, 1991-1993, and 2012 (and 1980-2012 Bureau of Justice data), all provide evidence to back this up. So that’s not what’s driving incarceration rates. So it must be possession of drugs; that has to be what’s creating this disparity between Black and White…or not. Well, I’m stumped. If the war on drugs is targeting everybody, and White People, who are included in that “everybody” are found more often to be the dealers, the users, and, no surprise, those caught in “possession”, how on earth is it possible that more Black People are incarcerated on drug crimes charges?

According to studies, it looks like there are a few reasons. First, “open-air” drug markets are more common in Black neighborhoods while White People tend to go over to their friend’s house to buy their coke/weed/molly/heroine. Second, disparities in sentencing (most strikingly for marijuana, and along with every other area in the system) account for a significant portion of the numbers. Third, Stop & Frisk, targets Black and Hispanics disproportionately. And even though 10-20 percent are found guilty of “something”, that leaves 80-90 percent who have been hassled for no apparent reason, other than a cop thinks you “look suspicious”. What if Dr.s and mechanics and hair stylists and chefs got “it” right 10-20 percent of the time, we wouldn’t put up with it. But this is different, right? It’s for our public safety. Be honest with yourself, if you were approached and engaged by law enforcement while walking down the street, or driving home from work, or playing in a park, or riding a bike on the sidewalk, because of how you looked, would you really be ok with that? I doubt it. And what about those “criminals” who may have committed some sort of offense, like “selling cigarettes“, or dealing marijuana, or they were driving erratically, or experiencing a bout of mental illness, but are obviously of no threat to any one (other than their self) including the officers? We need to understand how this systematic discrimination (profiling) creates distrust between communities of Color and the police.

The war on drugs didn’t come about because the use of drugs exploded in 1971. Nor did stop & frisk come about because of an increase of robberies or violent acts. None of this data provides evidence that drug use sharply increased over the past 30 years, because it didn’t. Law enforcement focused more attention on arresting people with drugs, in part, because of the incentives that were offered to departments across the nation. And in this way, we’ve witnessed the “criminalization” of communities of Color, all across America. And this, brings us to 2016.

So now that you have a better understanding of some of the reasons (not all, that’s several books worth of material) that the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, is embraced by so many people, of all Colors and Creed, from all Cultures and Communities, you still might choose to not embrace Black Lives Matter; but at least you will have some understanding of why so many people are so upset about what continues to happen to People of Color in our Country. It’s been 397 years since 1619. Millions of African Americans have encountered vitriol and violent acts simply because they are perceived to be different. And while it is true that everybody has something that makes them unique, and we should in no way minimize those attributes, we must get beyond allowing perceptions to colour our belief systems. We have made progress on many fronts but to believe that we are “there” is to deceive oneself.

On their “History” page, Black Lives Matter provides the background on what led to their founding of the organization and they offer some advice for our society:

Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression.”

It would do society good to remember this. In addition to those who disavow Black Lives Matter because of their sincere belief that it is nothing more than a hate group… some “forward thinking” groups and individuals fail to apply context to current events in light of historical realities. It is 2016. We have to educate our youth, and each other, about where we are, how we got here, and then start having the conversations about how to move beyond this place. Policies that: 1) decriminalize minor drug offenses and provide treatment options for addicts; 2) mandate more training for police recruits –  specifically in the areas of deescalation and learning to work and interact with the diverse populations they are likely to encounter; 3) provide adequate funding to ensure police have what they need and can be paid better for the difficult job they do; 4) demilitarize our police departments (they are not fighting a war, they are serving and protecting their communities); 5) provide funding and incentives for public schools to spend more time teaching civics, talking about civility, and discussing the importance of context as they learn about our history. This will not fix everything overnight; but in time, we can all learn the importance of the roles played by every person that calls this land home; and more importantly, learn to respect those qualities that make each of us unique while recognizing our common bonds.

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