It ought to be unnecessary for an activist movement to hinge on the principle of the equivalency of life. In the worlds of Democratic presidential candidates (don’t get me started on the Republicans), there is a compelling need to point out that Black Lives Matter and White lives matter. The problem with stating the obvious is that White lives have always mattered, and institutional racism has structured a lesser value for Black lives.
Asserting that Black Lives Matter is to rebut the inherent supposition that Black lives do not matter. Black lives have been devalued since the development of our Constitution when it counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person. To proclaim that Black Lives Matter is to rebut this constitutional flaw. We still live with the legacy of enslavement, when Black folks were other people’s property. Black folks aren’t property now (unless they are the much-exploited convict laborers), but unequal treatment is not just historical – it still happens. That’s why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important.
The Black Lives Matter Movement was a constructive outgrowth of the Trayvon Martin murder, furthered by the protests that happened in the wake of a Missouri grand jury’s failure to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the murderer of 18-year-old Michael Brown. As multiracial crowds proclaimed, “Black Lives Matter,” it seemed that, across the board, people were acknowledging the existence of institutional racism. Too bad Democratic presidential contenders can’t do the same.
Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, the two candidates whose entries into the race may have pushed Hilary Clinton to the left, faced protestors at the progressive Netroots Nation conference earlier this month. Instead of acknowledging the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement, both candidates were prickly. Sanders threatened to leave the stage because the protester’s chants drowned him out. Candidate Hilary Clinton was not present, and some objected to that, but she either missed the opportunity to engage, or was spared embarrassment if she emulated O’Malley and Sanders stance.
Both O’Malley and Sanders have scrambled to clean up their acts, backtracking and owning the “mistakes” they’ve made in dealing with the young activists that have taken the lead in protesting police brutality and asserting the importance of Black lives. To clean up their acts, all of the candidates need to listen to leaders of the Black Lives Matter Movement instead of talking at people the way politicians are most likely to do.
If they listen they might hear the frustration that young folks feel when the police stop them for simply walking while Black. They might hear the despair some will share when, even while fully prepared, they find few opportunities for employment, and too many doors slammed in their faces. They might understand that Blacks have a different reality than Whites do, and it shows up in terms of economic, educational, and social indicators.
In the wake of Michael Brown’s massacre, Ferguson elected two new Black members for the city council. Now, Andre Anderson, an African American man from Glendale, Arizona, has been appointed interim police chief. Ferguson is under pressure to do better. What about the rest of our country?
If Michael Brown’s killing was the impetus for Ferguson voters to go to the polls, that’s a good thing, though it shouldn’t take that. If the Black Lives Matter Movement does the same thing nationally, the Democratic nominee has a better chance of winning in November 2016. If the Black Lives Matter movement is not treated respectfully, it is likely that many voters will stay home. Young voters rushed to the polls in 2008, riveted by candidate Obama’s optimistic “Yes we can” mantra. Will they come out for White Democrats, no matter how progressive, who don’t respect their movements and their ideas?
The video showing the brutality involved in the vicious arrest of Sandra Bland, the Prairie View A&M University alumnae who died in jail earlier this month, makes it clear that the Black Lives Matter movement is much needed. Their pressure to stop police brutality has pushed police departments to use video cameras, and made it possible for us to see the repugnant behavior of State Trooper Brian T. Encinia, who roughed up Sandra Bland because she would not put out her cigarette after being pulled over or failure to signal a lane change.
Don’t tell me that White lives matter. That’s not new information. Whose faces are on our money? Whose statues grace legislative buildings? Who leads the overwhelming majority of Fortune 500 companies? Who dominates our legislative bodies? Our African American president, supposedly the most powerful person in the world, is ill treated by Congress, often for racial reasons. We live in a racist and patriarchal society where the value of Black life is too-often diminished. That’s why, Martin O’Malley, there is a special need to assert that Black Lives Matter. Those who would be president ought to embrace that concept, instead of denying it.
Julianne Malveaux is author and economist based in Washington, DC. She can be reached at www.juliannemalveaux.com