By Donald James, Special to the Chronicle
Black Lives Matter – the organization, philosophy and movement – has been in the bright spotlights of the media, the nation and international locales since its inception in 2013. What started as a response to the shocking and deadly 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager in Sanford, Fla., and the subsequent acquittal of his killer community watch volunteer George Zimmerman, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has strategically become a new-age political, social, freedom-seeking and modern civil rights machine. Its mission is to sound a clarion call to the world through effective messaging, actionable strategies and sustained social platforms loudly proclaiming that the lives of Black people everywhere really matter!
When the verdict came that acquitted Zimmerman, Alicia Garza, a Black political organizer living in Northern California, expressed her disdain on Facebook. Through a series of posts titled, “A Love Letter to Black People,” Garza wrote, “I continue to be surprised as how little Black lives matter…stop giving up on Black life. Black people, I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
Teaming up with two other Black women, Los Angeles-based social activist Patrisse Cullors and immigration activist Opal Tometi, #Black Lives Matter sprouted wings. Through social media platforms, the messaging from Garza, Cullors and Tometi was received by tens of millions of people. The message: stop systemic racism, bring an end to police brutality and fight for the total equality of all Black people everywhere, every day because…Black Lives Matter.
While Black Lives Matter’s genesis was rooted in Trayvon Martin’s murder and the aftermath acquittal of his killer, for many people Black Lives Matter – the movement – placed its “coming-of-age” footprints on the grounds of Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. BLM’s ability to mobilize tens of thousands of people produced huge protests in Ferguson and other cities across America.
After Ferguson, BLM became the “poster group” for how individuals and organizations could strategically and impactfully assemble people of all ethnicities to champion that the lives of Black people mattered. Before and since Ferguson, there have been dozens and dozens of deadly shootings of unarmed African Americans, many of which have been captured by cellphone videos and social media transmissions to millions of eyes and minds around the globe.
Among the list of Black victims is Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and many more.
Yet, the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., in 2020, and the murder of George Floyd caused by a Minneapolis, Minn., police officer kneeling on the handcuffed Black man’s neck, struck people of all ethnicities in a horrifying, but powerful way.
Black Lives Matter became a more critical change agent with its uncanny ability to organize and mobilized protests and sustain “influential messaging” across America and beyond. However, to this day, Black Lives Matter – as an organization and movement – is often misunderstood by some white and Black people. The questions: Is BLM a racist and violent group that organizes out of control protests across the nation and around the world, or is BLM a peaceful movement that fights for freedom, liberation and justice for all Black people?
While there have been spurts of violence and looting at some Black Lives Matter’s protests, Time magazine reported in 2020 that more than 93 percent of Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful. Where violence and looting have occurred has been linked to outsiders with an agenda far different than the vision and mission of BLM organizers, said the magazine. And to add credence to Time magazine’s assessment, Black Lives Matter was nominated recently for a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
“To carry forward a movement of racial justice and to spread that to other countries is very, very important,” said Norwegian parliament member Petter Eide who nominated Black Lives Matter for the award. “Black Lives Matter is the strongest force today doing this not only in the U.S., but also in Europe and in Asia.”
Time also selected BLM’s co-founders – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi – for its list of the 100 “Most Influential People of 2020,” calling the women “Icons.”
So what is Black Lives Matter?
“Black Lives Matter is an organization and movement that represents the next iteration and extension of the Civil Rights Movement,” said John Sloan, III, who, along with Curtis Renee co-leads and co-organizes BLMDetroit. “It’s a call to an idea that we, as Black people, know that our lives are important and have value. And the reason that we must proclaim it is because of the system that we live in doesn’t.”
When asked why some people counter the Black Lives Matter movement with All Lives Matter, Sloan responded. “When someone says, all lives matter, it’s obvious and clear that all lives don’t matter to this system in America. So we are not saying that Black Lives Matter more than other lives, we’re saying that Black Lives Matter, too.”
Nevertheless, regardless of any negative perceptions, Black Lives Matter has morphed into a global phenomenon, with ultra-active chapters throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. There’s a strong international following and support in Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, and Japan.
Sloan, who lives in Detroit, said BLMDetroit has the autonomy to make decisions about how best to operate in the Motor City.
“The basic premise is that I live in Detroit and Curtis Renee lives in Detroit,” Sloan explained. “We know Detroit’s needs better than someone who lives in New York, L.A., Atlanta or somewhere else. It’s the same for other Black Lives Matter chapters.”
According to Sloan, BLMDetroit crafted a Detroiters’ Bill of Rights and is asking the City’s Charter Commission to adhere to the Bill. The Bill includes such conditions as Detroit’s citizens having the right to be free from discrimination, right to water, right to safety and the right to health among other rights. Sloan said they are working with a coalition of activists and public servants like City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield and Councilwoman Rachel Castaneda-Lopez to advance the Bill. To make significant changes to anything, Sloan knows, there must be powerful policymaking strategies.
The art of policymaking is an area that Dr. Tiah McKinney, co-founder of The Equity Institute and co-founder and executive director of The McKinney Foundation, feels that her two Detroit-based non-profit organizations can help Black Lives Matter locally, nationally and internationally.
“It’s critically important to work with Black Lives Matter, arm-in-arm,” said McKinney, whose Ph.D. is in education policy and nonprofit management. “Through The Equity Institute’s advanced and relevant research, evidence-based policy making and engagement in advocacy, such efforts best support underserved and disproportionate impacted communities. There is research that has created and really shows proven strategies, best practices, lessons learned and processes to reach outcomes that Black Lives Matter desires.”
BLMDetroit, according to Sloan, continues to advocate and seek changes in policy that will better protect Black people from the systemic racist practice of police brutality in Detroit and beyond.
“BLMDetroit chooses to directly support those impacted by state-sanctioned violence,” said Sloan. “We choose to use our platform for justice support, and to uplift long-standing activists by providing avenues for political education, social economics, and food and nutrition.”
Educating Black children in Detroit, a city where the Black population is north of 80 percent, is important to BLMDetroit, said Sloan. Last June, Dr. Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, spoke at a rally in downtown Detroit where hundreds of people peacefully gathered, many holding Black Lives Matter signs. The overwhelming consensus of Vitti and other stakeholders – such as BLMDetroit – is that students attending Detroit Public Schools deserve the same education that students in the suburbs receive.
“If you talk about Black Lives Matter in education, it’s not about equality, it’s about equity,” Vitti said at the rally. “Our kids don’t need the same. Our kids need more.”
Vitti is not the only high-profile leader of a large organization in Detroit to show solidarity with and for the Black Lives Matter movement. Henry Ford Hospital System, in partnership with Health Alliance Plan and other healthcare professionals, demonstrated solidarity with Black Lives Matter last summer when much of the nation and world protested the highly watched murder of George Floyd.
“Henry Ford’s arms are open to embrace the community,” said Wright Lassiter, III, president and CEO, Henry Ford Health System. “And to embrace our team members in a way that says that we respect you for you, and you will be treated with the utmost respect for who you are when you come into our circle.”
Lassiter also joined top executives of Detroit’s nine largest corporations in rejecting all forms of racism, sexism and violence, while committing support to reforms for a fairer criminal justice system.
Ken Harris, president and CEO of the 120-year-old National Business League, Inc., believes in and supports Black Lives Matter.
“We have witnessed or learned about movements and extreme violence against Black people in America during slavery and through the Civil Rights Movement,” Harris said. “I ask, ‘Have we moved the needle in terms of police brutality, when we see the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many more Black men, Black women, and Black teens?’ ”
Harris continued. “If any organization, including Black Lives Matter, the Detroit Urban League, the NAACP, is in support of Black economic justice and equity and inclusion, the National Black League, the nation’s oldest and largest business and trade association, will work with them to close the economic income and wealth gap that exists in Detroit and across the nation for Black people.”
Sloan recognizes the importance of historically Black organizations, many of which were born in Detroit, to include the Nation of Islam, the Shrine of the Black Madonna and the Republic of New Afrika.
“Black Lives Matter Detroit is not trying to reinvent the wheel; the legacy of activism here in Detroit is historic,” Sloan said. “We ‘are not’ here saying that we are the new kids on the block and everybody else get out the way because we know how to run this. That is not who we are. We are trying to fill in where there are gaps and where we can support Black communities and Black people across Detroit.”
For Rev. Dr. Steve Bland Jr., president of the historic Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, one of the nation’s largest faith-based organizations of its type, the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved exponentially since Ferguson in 2014. He initially had concerns about the organization – but not its mission to combat police brutality.
“My challenge with Black Lives Matter, at that time in Ferguson, was that many felt the Black church was too quiet on issues like police brutality,” said Bland, who is also senior pastor of Liberty Temple Baptist Church in Detroit. “My initial response – at that point – was: Who was the Black church? It seems that in many ways, the organization was lumping all Black churches together, as part of the problem.”
Bland has seen the evolution of BLM, which has morphed into tackling the full gamut of issues facing Black people.
“I would love to talk with Black Lives Matter Detroit’s leadership, and most of the pastors that I know are open to talking,” said Bland. “Because we both will find out that we have many things in common, but we want to talk with, not be talked at. I feel conceptually and consciously that I’m already a part of Black Lives Matter. I have the Black Lives Matter sign in my church office, but it’s not just a slogan to me because I do believe Black lives really matter.”
Sloan does not rule out collaborations with organizations or individuals, as long as they affirm, uplift and honor all Black people and all Black communities across Detroit.
“When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean all,” Sloan said. “That means gay, straight, women, men, children, poor, rich, ex-felons, anyone with a college education, GED or is a dropout. We don’t care. if you are a Black person in Detroit or across the nation or the world, your life is valuable…your Black life matters!
For more information about Black Lives Matter, log on to www.blacklivesmatter.com. For more information about Black Lives Matter Detroit, log on to www.blmdetroit.com, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.