Police Reform Means Nothing Without Equality and Dignity

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea by Christopher J. Lebron (Oxford University Press, June 2017), available from Amazon and IndieBound:

Oscar Grant, Shereese Francis, Rekia Boyd, Kendrec McDade, Tamon Robinson, Shantel Davis, Jonathan Ferrell, Jordan Baker, McKenzie Cochran, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton, Bettie Jones, Roy Nelson, Tiara Thomas, Alonzo Smith, Anthony Ashford, Tyree Crawford, Samuel Dubose, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Natasha McKenna, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile.

This list is far from complete. In fact, it’s short by hundreds of names that are the damning evidence of the level of violence against black bodies in America. What you might find shocking is that the hundreds of names missing do not span a century or even decades of American history. Rather, the list I’ve provided begins in 2012. And it is missing the one name we might look back upon from some future vantage point as the most important in the history of today’s racial struggle: Trayvon Martin.

The story of the movement that seeks to redeem a nation begins with Martin. The evening of February 26, 2012, Martin was walking through a Sanford, Florida community wearing a hoodie and holding only a soft drink and some candy. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, deemed Martin suspicious and called the police though Martin had not actually done anything actionable—his only possible crime seemed to be walking while black. Though advised by the 911 operator to stand down and keep his distance, Zimmerman initiated a confrontation that resulted in a scuffle that ended with him shooting seventeen-year-old Martin dead. Despite Martin’s younger age, weight, and size disadvantage, and the all-important fact that he was unarmed, his character quickly became the center of speculation and conversation—he was a black teenager wearing a hoodie, walking through someone else’s neighborhood; if Zimmerman suspected him, he must have been suspect-worthy. It came as a surprise to some in America when, in the summer of 2013, Zimmerman was found not guilty on all charges related to Martin’s death. It was at this moment that Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi made history. As Garza states on the website bearing the movement’s name, “I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed.” Thus, it was the death and failure of our justice system to account for the unnecessary death of a black American that prompted three women to offer these three basic and urgent words to the American people: black lives matter.

Today, #BlackLivesMatter has become a force demanding change in America. Eschewing traditional hierarchical leadership models, the movement cannot be identified with any single leader or small group of leaders, despite the role Cullors, Tometi, and Garza played in giving us the social movement hashtag that will likely define our generation. Rather, #BlackLivesMatter represents an ideal that motivates, mobilizes, and informs the actions and programs of many local branches of the movement. Much like the way a corporate franchise works, minus revenue and profit, #BlackLivesMatter is akin to a social movement brand that can be picked up and deployed by any interested group of activists inclined to speak out and act against racial injustice.

There is no doubt that the movement itself is historically momentous, even if it remains unclear as of this writing the level of policy efficacy #BlackLivesMatter has been able to bring to bear on the problem of racial justice. Indeed, it is precisely because of the nascent and formative status that I resisted writing directly on the movement. I did not, nor do not as of this writing perceive a space or opportunity to say something sufficiently systematic and helpful about the movement on which so many black Americans are pinning their hopes. Yet, there is something undeniably powerful about those three words: black lives matter. Yes, it is true that they were brought into our political existence at a moment marked by tragedy and unjustifiable losses of black life. That alone makes those three words a touchstone for our American lives today—the struggle to insist that black lives are indeed lives and therefore not candidates for cursory or careless or hateful or negligible elimination. The problem as I saw it from the perspectives of a citizen, a black Latino man, and a scholar was to honor the moment in which we find ourselves, at the helm of which is a movement that seeks to finally undo this nation’s murderous racial history. This is a history that spans and reaches like a weed across centuries. Indeed, the only way, I think, to appropriately reflect on this moment that seeks once and for all to place black Americans on a level of human equality with whites is to treat the #BlackLivesMatter movement as intelligent, enduring, and politically savvy. As a trained political philosopher, I had no way of directly engaging the movement given its short life. The Black Power generation had in the sharp and brave tome penned by Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton, Black Power, a published manifesto and theoretical edifice. In contrast, no such text exists to provide the philosophical moorings of #BlackLivesMatter.

This realization provides the central aim of my book The Making of Black Lives Matter. As I had turned those three words over in my mind—black lives matter—and read them in news stories and heard them spoken by commentators and friends, it became clear the three words themselves, as distinct from the particular strategies and agents of the movement, indicated a sentiment that was as old as the desire to be free from slavery. From the point of view of my own professional training, “black lives matter” represents a civic desire for equality and a human desire for respect, the intellectual roots of which lie deep in the history of black American thought. And precisely because the history is rich and established, I perceived an opportunity to contribute to our moment by bringing to bear the forefathers and foremothers of black American social and political thought on an urgent claim: that black Americans are humans, too. Precisely because blacks’ struggle for human acknowledgment is centuries old, what can those who have been on the front lines in the past teach us about our present ideas about the struggle? Indeed, since the struggle is as old as America itself, are we equipped with the right kind of ethos to make our present-day social movements as effective as they can and need to be?


America was at a crucial junction in the middle of the nineteenth century. The institution of slavery had been the backbone of the nation’s social order and economic logic, yet it was coming under increasing pressure from abolitionists, who tirelessly pressed slave owners and non-slave-owning observers of the institution to accept that America was involved in a great crime against humanity. Moreover, abolitionists defiantly argued that slavery betrayed the very ideals of America’s democratic founding. Into this scene stepped the self-emancipated Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s charge, as he saw it, was to bring the perspective of servitude and inhumane suffering to the American people and compel them to confront the hypocrisy of their political associations and institutions. As slavery died, a virulent form of white supremacy moved to fill the void emancipation had left in America’s racial power structure. Jim Crow was a social system of segregation and subordination. At its least malignant it advocated for the principle of separate but equal accommodations for white and black Americans. But the very minimal moral embodied in even that principle was a sham. Rather, the great sin of Jim Crow was lynching—the murderous license white Americans exercised in extrajudicially terrorizing and executing black Americans. Ida B. Wells, after having been forced to flee her hometown under threat of violent retribution for exposing lynching, developed into a great American journalist and activist. In the span of a handful of years of observing the deficiencies in both our laws and media coverage of white terrorism against blacks, Wells became and remained into the twentieth century America’s leading voice against white America’s murderous predilections. Douglass’s and Wells’s struggles and ideas are our first engagement with the history of the idea “black lives matter.”

Black art has always been and remains a pillar of black political expression. Though widely derided among conservative whites and even some blacks, gangster rap like that produced by the west coast group N.W.A. has as part of its roots statements against police brutality. The present uses of black urban performance make a stand for social progress, going back to a foundational moment in black arts and letters—the Harlem Renaissance. This engagement is challenging. In the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the era of the New Negro, we have a truly fresh and transformative historical moment with a great many players overlapping, interacting, collaborating, disagreeing, competing to define the future of American democracy through artistic expression. Two important figures of note are Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The first, Langston Hughes, was present at the beginning of the movement Alain Locke helped to initiate. Through his poetry and essays he resisted the elitism that sometimes threatened to and did at times define the Renaissance. Hughes’s work is deeply important for democratic thinking given his allegiance to the beat, cadence, and texture of the lives of everyday “low down” folk, as he admiringly rather than disdainfully called them. In this regard, Zora Neale Hurston is the second important partner in this conversation. She, like Hughes, affirmed the value of common and mundane experiences, such as setting out for a day of work at the railroad. Similarly, Hurston championed the importance of black women’s expressive capacities in both intellectual and artistic life. This combination of commitments urged Hurston in the direction of cataloguing and performing black folklore in service to excavating the voice of black Americans. For Hurston, black life mattered in part because it served as an ongoing chronicle of the modes of personal and civic engagement black people employed in refusing to be completely determined by oppression.

From The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea by Christopher J. Lebron. Copyright © 2017 published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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