Black Lives Matter has moved from the political outskirts to the center of America’s conversation about itself
Now that we can see the letters from space, can we see what they mean?
For months, I’ve been immersed in black death: in the disproportionately dire effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on African Americans. In the video of George Floyd being killed by four Minneapolis police officers as he called out for his dead mother. In the stories of Ahmaud Arbery shot to death for jogging through a white neighborhood in southeast Georgia, and Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death in her sleep by the police in Louisville, Kentucky.
In the past three weeks, I’ve also seen the phrase Black Lives Matter travel across the country and around the world. It’s been emblazoned on banners, T-shirts and face masks as hundreds of thousands of people, a significant number of them white, have taken to the streets to protest police brutality. It’s been repeated by politicians, corporate leaders and sports stars, and chalked across driveways in well-heeled neighborhoods. The movement, which started as a 2013 hashtag, was co-founded by three black female organizers in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. It’s since moved from the outskirts of mainstream political discourse to the center of the most urgent conversation America is having about itself, and the kind of country it will be.
It’s a season of black death juxtaposed with a national awakening around a movement to protect black life and end structural racism. It’s the latest thing in America’s racial dissonance and it’s dizzying. It also raises essential questions: What does the widespread adoption, usage and performance of Black Lives Matter mean in practice? And can the new ubiquity of the term ever make the words feel true in America?
The bright yellow paint is striking as you turn north onto 16th Street from Lafayette Square, a short distance from the White House. The 50-foot-high letters stretch over two blocks between the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute and the AFL-CIO headquarters.
The mural was unveiled on June 5 when Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed that section of the street Black Lives Matter Plaza. It was both an expression of sovereignty and a trolling of President Donald Trump who, days earlier, had cleared a crowd of peaceful protesters from the area so he could participate in a photo op.
BLACK LIVES MATTER. It’s a message you can read from space. Denver; Sacramento, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Brooklyn, New York, have followed suit with their own murals.
A week after the unveiling, the street was still closed to traffic and people stopped to snap photos while standing on the giant-sized letters.
The protests brought people out, even during a pandemic, said Erinn Bundy, 33, a program analyst with the State Department. “Not just black people, you see whites, you see Asians, all different types of people here, and all different types of black people.” It was Bundy’s third time at the site and she wanted to show it to family members before the evening crowd of protesters arrived. America turned a corner with the video of Floyd being killed, she said. It gave everyone the same understanding of “what has been going on for so long.”
Her aunt, Debbie Brown, 65, a human resources manager originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, grew up unable to sit at “whites only” lunch counters, “so I understand that whole civil rights from a different perspective than the younger generation.” She worked on the Justice Department program that put 100,000 police officers on the streets as part of the 1994 crime bill. “They were supposed to work within the community and that didn’t happen,” Brown said, “so I get that whole ‘defund the police’ process.”
To be proximal to the White House “shows a collaboration and an embracing of Black Lives Matter that is very monumental,” Brown said.
Bundy is inspired by the mural’s symbolic power, but said that can’t be the only thing to come from the protests. “This is beautiful, but we need more change.”
Joanne Simms, a retired deputy assistant attorney general with the Justice Department, wore a Black Lives Matter cap and her shirt read “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.” She said the defiant cruelty of the officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck woke people up. She used to be married to a police officer, but said there’s no turning from what we saw. In that moment you had to decide, “It’s not enough to say I’m not a racist. But are you anti-racist?”
Her grandson, Khalil Holston, 12, marveled at the mural’s size. “To me, this is just making the movement bigger. Instead of just having it in this country or in a certain state, it’s across the whole world. It makes me feel great to know that people across the oceans and everywhere and different places are seeing this and are joining in our fight.”
Tara Meehan, a hotel manager from northern Virginia, was out of work because of the pandemic. Meehan was slow to speak. “I don’t want to say anything wrong,” she said. She was there to be part of history. The mural gave her goose bumps. “It’s just like a, ‘Finally!’ kind of thing, you know what I mean? All these years, finally so much stuff is changing.”
In the past three weeks, grief and anger over Floyd’s death are leading to demands for change in all the institutions of American life. Cities and states have promised to redirect funding from police departments to community investment, and Confederate iconography has been torn from public squares. A black driver named Bubba Wallace is driving a “#BlackLivesMatter” car at NASCAR. Some swear America is preparing to deal with its foundational sins. Others point out that some of the same white people who are ardently chanting “Black Lives Matter” now also believed America was post-racial not so long ago.
Gabriel “Asheru” Benn, 45, a Peabody Award-winning hip-hop artist and social entrepreneur and educator, first heard of Black Lives Matter in 2014 during the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. The movement gave everyone greater social justice literacy, and not just around white supremacy. “As a black man, it made me realize that there’s a certain male privilege that I carry where I wasn’t thinking about LGBT, queer, trans and all of that specifically,” he said.
For years there’s been activism “around equity and social justice work in the education space, the political space, the corporate space,” he said. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Floyd video showed how superficial many of those efforts were.
The recent protests reminded many of the civil rights movement and they want to be a part of it. But it requires more than simply wearing a hat or a shirt that proclaims Black Lives Matter. “That’s the piece that white folks are trying to make peace with,” Benn said. “They are trying to answer, ‘Do my words match my deeds?’ ”
In his work as an education consultant, Benn said, he asks people for action statements. “You don’t have to change the world, just give me one baby step to have your words match your deeds. You can say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but what is the work you’re going to do personally, outwardly? That’s where we are. We’ve already had to code-switch and dim our light so you could feel better about yourself. Now what are you going to do? There’s no avoiding this step.”
On Friday, another video surfaced of a black man, Rayshard Brooks, being shot and killed by police in Atlanta who’d been called to investigate a DUI.
It started another round of protests and it all felt incredibly sad. We knew these protests wouldn’t immediately heal the world, but we didn’t know we’d be back to business as usual so quickly.
America has always been in the black death business. That’s not just in the spectacular, twitching, caught-on-video fashion it needs to see to believe, but also in the daily inequities — the lead in our water — that cut short our lives and try to steal our joy. It’s why Black Lives Matter has always been so strident and insistent. Even as we’ve watched the phrase travel, and the movement grow large enough to be seen from space, what does it really mean if it can’t stop the killing of Rayshard Brooks?
In the short term, it means some things will change and some already have. If history is any guide, America will reset to the lowest common denominator at which enough white people can feel good about lowering their voices and getting out of the streets. They will still wear T-shirts that say “Black Lives Matter.” Black people will continue marching, agitating and teaching our kids to try to stay alive.
We’ll be the people still struggling for justice, struggling to breathe, struggling just to be. The people to whom black lives matter most of all.