Books

Five Years In, Hearing the Voices of Black Lives Matter

A Jay-Z documentary on Trayvon Martin and several memoirs look back on the origins of the new civil rights movement

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It’s been five years since the acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin to death in Sanford, Florida, an event that led Oakland-based activist Alicia Garza to write on Facebook, “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.” Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a Los Angeles community organizer, replied to Garza’s post with “#BlackLivesMatter”; soon, the two women (along with community organizer Opal Tometi) would lay the groundwork for what would become the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

What came next is documented in a series of new books marking the anniversary, as well as a TV documentary series on Martin that airs on the Paramount Network starting tonight. Following Martin’s death, young people and activists around the country who had been watching the Zimmerman trial with bated breath took to social media as a tool for both witnessing and coping.

The first of this year’s memoirs of the movement is the beautiful When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, written by Khan-Cullors and asha bandele and published in January. It’s a passionate testimonial about the possibility of transforming tragedy and mourning into a global force for change — “In New York, in the wake of the acquittal, Opal helps organize a major march across the Brooklyn Bridge that culminates in a 1,000-person sit-in in Times Square, the crossroads of the world” — and a document of the trauma and heartbreak so many Black communities experience from the unaccountable violence that claims the lives of Black people.

“In Oakland, Alicia leads protesters through the downtown business area, where they are set upon by police,” Khan-Cullors writes. At the same time, in Los Angeles, “working primarily with women … I begin planning what will become the largest march I’ve ever planned up until that point.” From the start, their goal is clear: “We are firm in our conviction that our lives matter by virtue of our birth, and by virtue of the service we have offered to people, systems and structures that did not love, respect or honor us. And while we are cultivating this idea in our respective meetings and our respective teams, we, Alicia, Opal and I, do not want to control it. We want it to spread like wildfire.”

In the first year of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Khan-Cullors writes, “we are able to talk about the horrifics as they roll out with regularity. We hashtag names again and again.” After Martin comes Renisha McBride, 19, shot by Theodore Wafer in Dearborn, Michigan, when she knocks on his door to ask for help after getting in a car accident. John Crawford, 22, is shot and killed by an off-duty police officer for picking up a toy gun in an Ohio Walmart, four days before Michael Brown is killed in Ferguson.

As time marches on, the deaths and the hashtags continue to pile up.

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“They say that time heals all wounds. It does not,” observes Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, in Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. “Had the tragedy not been so public, I probably would have taken more time to grieve, but I wasn’t given that type of privilege.”

The six-part documentary series, produced by Jay-Z and the Cinemart, begins and ends as it should, with the murdered seventeen-year-old’s parents. Over the course of subsequent episodes, the audience hears a series of 911 calls from Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, the aspiring police officer who became neighborhood watch captain in his previously exclusive gated community in part to live out a racist vigilante fantasy.

Rest in Power establishes a pattern of behavior from Zimmerman: He calls the cops so frequently on Black children who moved to his neighborhood after the 2008 economic crisis that dispatchers know his voice and refer to him by his first name.  Yet, as the series documents, it still took more than forty days, not to mention the intervention of media-savvy civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, for Zimmerman to be arrested and charged with Martin’s fatal shooting, and to get the killing reported in context by the media.

Martin’s death was the first real major convergence of race and policing in President Barack Obama’s presidency after the euphoria of post-racial liberalism had worn off. In Rest in Power, we see Obama graying at a rapid pace, weary, saying that if he had a son, his son “would look like Trayvon.” He doubles down and says that, put another way, he could have been Trayvon Martin when he was younger. As author Mychal Denzel Smith puts it in an interview, it becomes clear that there will always be more Trayvon Martins than Barack Obamas.

Rest in Power captures this monumental moment in American resistance with moving detail, showing scenes from protests around the country. And forthcoming soon are some additional invaluable histories of this period that provide a broader picture of the modern articulation of Black protest and mobilization in response to racist and vigilante violence.

These books are particularly remarkable because all too often, the narratives of resistance that do exist are positioned as though cisgender heterosexual men have always been at the forefront. As these works demonstrate, Black women have been the unsung architects of many of these protest movements — and they have only recently started to get their due.

Indeed, as we see the signs of hate rising all around us today, it becomes clear that Black women tried to warn us. Khan-Cullors notes this in When They Call You a Terrorist, writing on how she and her co-founders of Black Lives Matter as a movement were nearly erased from early reporting: “Despite it being a part of the historical record that it is always women who do the work, even as men get the praise — it takes a long time for us to occur to most reporters in the mainstream. Living in patriarchy means that the default inclination is to center men and their voices, not women and their work.”

Of these new accounts, the broadest and most inclusive is Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century (University of California Press, August 17, 2018) by historian, writer, and activist Barbara Ransby, director of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The noted biographer of Black Freedom Movement icon Ella Baker, Ransby traces the political origins of modern Black protest in the form of the broader Movement for Black Lives (of which the Black Lives Matter Global Network is a part) to the U.S.-based Black feminist tradition.

“Black women have been prominent in leadership and as spokespersons, and have insisted on being recognized as such,” Ransby writes. “The movement has also addressed the racism and violence experienced by the LGBTQIA communities. … New activists have encountered Black feminist terms and concepts like intersectionality in the context of struggle rather than simply through textbooks or in college classrooms.”

That is true both for how she situates the BLM founders in relation to Martin’s case and for how she writes about the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after unarmed teen Michael Brown’s shooting by police officer Darren Wilson. In a chapter dedicated to activism in Ferguson, Ransby profiles Black feminist organizers, including Darnell Moore, Kayla Reed, Brittany Ferrell, Alexis Templeton, and Jamala Rogers.

“When I suggest that the movement is a Black feminist-led movement, I am not asserting that there was no opposition and contestation over leadership, or that everyone involved subscribed to feminist views,” Ransby writes. “Nevertheless, when we listen carefully, we realize that the most coherent, consistent, and resolute political voices to emerge over the years since 2012 have been Black feminist voices, or Black feminist-influenced voices.”

Citing Moore writing about Ferguson activism for The Feminist Wire, Ransby quotes him writing, “‘Not all of the freedom fighters are Black men with masculine swag and pedigree. Not all of them are cisgender and straight and able-bodied. Some of us are women. Some of us are queer. Some of us are trans. Some of us are poor. Some of us are disabled. And, yet, all of us desire the same: an end to anti-black policies, practices, and ideologies.’ These are the kinds of intersectional feminist politics that were injected into the protests in Ferguson.”

Perhaps because she is the historian with the longest, most mature lens, Ransby addresses the notion of political quilting, affectionately naming nearly every activist and leader who appears in the documentation related to Black Lives Matter or the Movement for Black Lives. “If Alicia Garza’s initial Facebook post in 2013 was a love letter to Black people, this epilogue is a love letter to the organizers in the Movement for Black Lives and a tribute to their increasingly expansive vision,” she writes, after a meticulous accounting that includes groups like the Black Radical Congress, the Dream Defenders, and the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100).

Charlene A. Carruthers, one of the Black queer feminists highlighted in Ransby’s book, has written her own nontraditional memoir, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, which will be published in August by Beacon Press. Carruthers led grassroots and digital strategy for such organizations as the Women’s Media Center and Color of Change before co-founding BYP100 to organize Black youth nationally in alignment with principles created by its membership. Her book recounts her efforts to lead a grassroots movement in the social media era. But she does not flinch from portraying the petty internal divisions that can disrupt individuals and organizations, and why they need to be reconciled.

Paying homage to elders and historical figures like Ella Baker and Ransby is an important part of learning how to develop as a leader, Carruthers writes. But there is more. “People have to feel the possibility of liberation,” she adds. “History and today’s movement teach us that Black folks have held the line of resistance for centuries. Resistance is not new, yet today’s realities require the movement to push its growing edges, tell more complete stories, and construct more complete solutions.”

***

In many of these accounts, the work Garza, Khan-Cullors, and Tometi began in 2013 is referred to as the spark that fueled the fire that would rage after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson the following year. (Though Ransby and Khan-Cullors independently reiterate that the Black Lives Matter founders were not seeking attention or credit.) There is one notable exception: that of Baltimore-based activist DeRay Mckesson, who has written an otherwise riveting and affecting memoir, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking, September 4).

Mckesson is a gifted, pointed storyteller. Describing his childhood with his great-grandmother — who raised him in the absence of his mother, Joan, who struggled with drug addiction and with whom he was reunited when he was older — Mckesson writes with astounding poetry, vulnerability, and flair. “When she died during my senior year in college,” he writes, “it felt like she took all the music in the world with her. She was one of the first people that I knew loved me. It was sometimes a tough love, a love rooted in rules and structure. But it was a love that I understood and that I knew was there to protect me.” (Both Carruthers’ and Mckesson’s books were provided to the Voice as uncorrected advance copies; text in the published versions may differ slightly.)

Mckesson is this deliberate and careful with language throughout; it is easy to understand how he has become prominent, aside from his omnipresent blue vest, which has a story of its own.

But Mckesson also chooses, for reasons that remain obscure in a book otherwise rich with loving attention and detail, to erase BLM leaders. They are mentioned nowhere by name. Instead, he gives credit for the inception of Black Lives Matter to Marcus Anthony Hunter, chair of African American Studies at UCLA, who tweeted the hashtag in relation to his work around black migration in August 2012, though it didn’t catch on until the following year.

“It was the first time that assemblage of words would ever be used on Twitter, and months later it would take on a life all its own,” Mckesson writes. “Ferguson was a phenomenon. It was neither the logical or inevitable conclusion of a particular wave of organizing or organization, nor the result of a small set of people gathering to start a movement. The truth of that phenomenon, how it started, what galvanized it, what sustained it, why it mattered to the world, and what is its legacy — those stories are finally being told now, by the people who lived them. The movement was born from the collective energy of a people, not at the direction of a small set of leaders.”

While it is technically accurate that Hunter was the first Black person to use the phrase and hashtag #blacklivesmatter on Twitter on August 20, 2012, context also matters: The professor’s tweet hardly went viral with seven retweets and eleven likes. The point is not who used the hashtag first, but who used it to organize around the momentum that coalesced into a movement around the world.

The erasure of Black feminist organizers and victims of vigilante violence is a glaring and curious omission that raises more questions in Mckesson’s book than it answers. But a memoir is just that — a collection of memories. In this, it is clear that his memories of the movement in context are different from those of many notable Black feminist activists.

“Acts of defiance, disruption, and insurgent rule-breaking are ways that we delink from the politics of routine, of acclimation, of compromise, and of collaboration,” Ransby writes at the end of her book. “To paraphrase James Baldwin, it is when we demand the impossible that we come close to real freedom.”

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that there are years that ask questions and years that answer. The common thread in these narratives of the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter is the question of whether the Black community has the energy, resolve, and imagination to continue to fight for real freedom. This is especially true in the wake of new fatal incidents that feel like repeats of the same traumatic story — whether it is Markeis McGlockton’s shooting death in a Florida parking lot or the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson in Oakland, initially reported by some outlets as if she had provoked an attack by an unmedicated 27-year-old white assailant with bipolar and schizophrenic disorders. That is, like so many others, a question for the generations — in a year that, it appears, is not a year for answers.

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