Standing for the Black Lives Matter movement and standing for law enforcement doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive — but we’ve made it that way. We need to demand more from activists, the media, and law enforcement so that the vision behind the fights we wage don’t get lost in all the dust we drum up.
He opened his eyes and blinked a few times, his eyes adjusting slowly to the light pouring in through the windows.
He watched his reflection carefully, turning his head to the left, to the right. He inspected the graying stubble on his cheeks, the graying stubble on his chin.
The noise grew louder.
Arms around his waist.
“Morning, baby,” his wife greeted him, breaking up the radio static he was hearing in his head. “You were out like a light.”
He smiled, nodding, watching his reflection carefully. She smiled back before she turned and walked away. “I’ll go get breakfast ready,” she said.
His eyes went black.
The noise again.
Louder this time.
He opened his eyes and blinked a few times, his eyes adjusting slowly to the light pouring in through the windows.
A poke at his side.
“Daddy, are you awake?” his daughter asked, cheekily, breaking up the radio static he was hearing in his head. In the mirror, he could notice the precocious 6-year-old watching him, smiling as she stared at the wisps of shaving cream slathered across his face. “Mommy asked me to check you didn’t go back to sleep.”
He smiled, shaking his head, mouthing a silent, sarcastic “No” at her as he watched his reflection carefully. She laughed before she turned and hopped out of the room. “Then how are you talking to me, silly?” she asked.
His eyes went black.
The noise again.
As loud this time as it was maddening.
He opened his eyes and blinked a few times, his eyes stinging, adjusting slowly to the flashing red lights lighting up the night, pouring in through his car’s windows.
A banging on the half-open car window.
He couldn’t make out what the uniformed lady outside his car was saying. Not over the radio static in his head. He turned his head slowly, looking at his reflection in the rearview mirror.
The clean shave from the morning.
It tasted like sweat rolling from his brow. It tasted like blood spilling from his mouth.
He slowly turned to the window again as the door flew open, the woman’s arms frantically reaching for his seatbelt.
Voices cracked in and out of the blur.
“Suspect escaped on foot…”
A drop of blood landed on his wrist as he looked down.
“Numerous gunshot wounds to the chest…”
His bloodied hand was clutching at his chest.
“I need an ambulance now…”
He saw his deep crimson shirt, where the bullets hurtled through the air between the gun barrel and his chest a few minutes prior.
They peeled him from the driver’s seat.
The noise in his head grew louder.
He didn’t know why the man ran up to his car and fired at him at a traffic light.
But he knew he’d never see his wife and daughter again.
His eyes went black.
They Were Fathers
That father could have been white. He could have been black. He could have been Asian. He could have been Middle Eastern.
He could have been my dad. Or some other dad that I know.
In any case, nobody deserves to die in cold blood.
And that’s why there’s a lump in my throat this week. If the gruesome Alton Sterling killing on Tuesday wasn’t bad enough, all we had to do was wait a day for a story just like it. If the Facebook Live video of Philando Castile getting shot by a trigger-happy police officer wasn’t gruesome enough, all we had to do was wait a day for a story just like it. Five Dallas cops were gunned down by a 25-year-old Army veteran as Black Lives Matter protestors took to the streets to stand up to the injustice of the previous few days.
Of those seven who were killed, some were fathers.
Like Sterling, whose five kids had their college tuitions effectively paid for by the generous public outpouring of support after the tragedy.
Like Dallas Police Officer Patrick Zamarripa, who left behind a toddler daughter.
Like Castile, who memorized the names of the 500 children in the Saint Paul Public Schools system he served every day. As one of his colleagues told TIME:
He remembered their names. He remembered who couldn’t have milk. He knew what they could have to eat and what they couldn’t. This was a real guy. He made a real contribution.
Joan Edman, a recently retired paraprofessional at the school system
He didn’t deserve to die like he did. None of these men did.
And that’s why scrolling through Facebook on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday was difficult to bear. On one side of the fence, I had friends react to the Sterling and Castile stories by saying things like “But he shouldn’t have had a gun on him” and “He should have followed the officers’ instructions.” On the other side of the fence, I had friends react to the cop shootings with “There’s more where that came from” and “We need to make the Dallas Police Department an example of what happens when you mess with us.”
The comments made me realize that something’s amiss.
Somewhere in the rallying and protesting and online arguing, we forgot that supporting black rights and respecting law enforcement doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
It’s something comedian and The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, poignantly weighed in on last week:
It always feels like in America, if you take a stand for something, you automatically are against something else… For instance, if you’re pro-Black Lives Matter, you’re assumed to be anti-police, and if you’re pro-police, then you surely hate black people… when in reality, you can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we should all be. It should be what we’re aiming for.
Granted, Noah has a very unique perspective. He launched his career on the standup circuit by finding ways to creatively shed light on his difficult upbringing. Born in South Africa to a white Swiss German father and a black South African mother, their marriage was illegal in the thick of apartheid.
But it’s not his interracial past that made him see the mind-numbingness that is 2016 America. It’s not even the fact that he figured out how to survive a childhood through apartheid that helped.
It’s the fact that none of this stuff is mutually exclusive that made him take 7 minutes out of his show to point out how our unintentional polarization of every topic is akin to picking sports teams to root for, or whether you’re a cat person or a dog person.
So where does that leave us?
Don’t tell me that black lives matter when you’re okay with innocent police officers dying.
Don’t tell me that you swear to protect and serve us when you’re okay with innocent black people dying.
When the movements and alliances we’ve forged and fought for have splintered us more than they’ve mended us, something is terribly amiss.
Their mission is to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease through the advancement of research; to provide and enhance care for all those affected; and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health.
Their vision is a world without Alzheimer’s disease.
Their strategic plan includes providing resources and education to those facing Alzheimer’s and dementia. Needless to say, they’ve got their act together over there at the Alzheimer’s Association.
Their mission informs. Their vision inspires.
For many leaders and many organizations, however, the line between vision and mission become blurred. And some people in an organization just don’t “get it.”
According to a 2013 study published in the Harvard Business Review, even at major corporations where “clearly articulated public strategies” are laid out, 70% of their employees can’t correctly identify their company’s vision when presented with six possible choices.
Whether it’s corporate leadership or church leadership, even if you beat people over the head with what your organization is about — even if you’re really, really good at this whole team/organization/business thing — your best and brightest just might not “get it.”
It’s why millions of dollars are poured into annual leadership seminars and coaching — to train leaders to cast their vision within their organization regularly over the year. Because when your team is bouncing from mission to mission, from month to month, from day to day, it’s just natural that shifting priorities and varying stressors can cloud what drives the organization into the future at all.
You need to put your vision in a place where you can see it every single day.
At its core, the Black Lives Matter movement is profoundly important in addressing the systemic demonization and dehumanizing of black people in America. While the movement began in 2012, it’s not like any of us only just started realizing there was a race issue in America — it’s about as much a part of the nation’s fabric as are guns, beer, and air conditioning.
From the country’s founding fathers owning slaves to the racially-motivated destruction of “Black Wall Street” in 1921 to the March on Washington where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged onlookers and generations to follow with his gripping “I Have a Dream” speech — this has been woven into the fabric of this country just as much as the wars we’ve won or the technologies we’ve introduced or the people we’ve sent to the moon.
It’s the worst-kept secret in the world: Black people have been marginalized in this country. Every Black Lives Matter campaign exists to fix this.
Their vision is laid out on the website: Black Lives Matter exists to see a world where black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.
But like every organization — because of the histrionics of some of the leadership and the hysterias instigated by the media — there’s a tendency for the vision to get lost in all the noise. In fact, Pew Research Center found that 36% of Americans who are familiar with the Black Lives Matter movement either don’t understand its goals or understand it very little. Among black people who are aware of the movement, 42% say they understand it very well — which still leaves 58% at least somewhat cloudy on the organization’s vision.
This is a problem.
It’s not an “I get it because I’m black” thing or a “You won’t understand because you’re not black” thing, because the numbers show that there are a lot of people who really honestly don’t understand the nuances here.
Some people post on Facebook because they believe Black Lives Matter is an all-out assault on law enforcement in America. To them, cops are evil, can’t be trusted, and must inherently be the enemy. It’s why you heard cheers from some corners of the interwebs when the five Dallas officers were shot to death while trying to keep in order our right to peaceably assemble and protest.
Some people post on Facebook because they believe Black Lives Matter is hell-bent on marginalizing white people and Asian people and everybody else in the country so that black culture could reign supreme.
In either case, you’re wrong. And don’t be bummed — 36% of the country just don’t get it, either. And if you’re black, 58% of the country’s black population miss the mark on the organization’s purpose.
Let’s get this straight: The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t about other lives not mattering. It isn’t about mattering more or less. It isn’t about pitting straight Christians versus gay Christians. It isn’t about pitting the left versus the right.
It isn’t just about cop crimes and it isn’t just a “black” cause.
The Black Lives Matter movement amplifies and broadens the talking points around systemic racism, including the deprivation of basic human rights and dignity, and how the nation intentionally leaves black people powerless.
At the core, the movement is about showing the country that the way we truly love each other and co-exist as people is by making us aware that the travesties of history ought to not repeat themselves; the cycle must break for us to truly move forward.
Some of the talking points — from their website — include:
Poverty and genocide in the black community
The millions of black people locked away in prisons
Black girls who are used as negotiating chips during foreign crisis and war
The hundreds of thousands of black people in the U.S. who are undocumented — and ignored — immigrants
Unfortunately, we’re all too swept up by hashtags and hype to ask the questions that help us understand what we’re fighting for in the first place. It’s why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge lost its purpose and eventually morphed into just a collection of videos of people laughably dumping ice water on themselves for cheap thrills and cheap giggles — it’s inherently fun to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The challenge lies in reminding ourselves why we’re doing it in the first place.
The Black Lives Matter movement is extremely important.
But not understanding what it’s about and posting whatever’s on your mind is akin to throwing ice water on your head and then telling your friends they need to try it, too.
The movement’s vision has been blurred. And I know who’s to blame.
I used to write for a news company that caters primarily to a center-right audience. (At the time, I was one of the few center-left writers on the staff.) During my time there, I learned something incredibly important: the media spins stories because they have audiences that effectively pay their bills.
Now as much as I’d love to take credit for blowing your minds, I understand this is by no means some sort of huge revelation: Any business would understandably focus on pleasing its customers. It’s why HBO executives are scrambling to find the next big thing for their international audience once Game of Thrones wraps up. It’s why Super Bowl advertisers border on blatant sexism when crafting their high-budget primetime commercials. It’s why Old Spice decided to launch their 2010 marketing campaign featuring a man in a towel on a horse — because women were the ones most likely to buy deodorant for their male partners.
Right-wing media outlets report what they report because their audience wants to read a very specific perspective on the world. (To be fair, the same goes for left-wing media outlets.)
It’s why, on the night of the Alton Sterling shooting — despite the fact that the story was taking over our Facebook walls and Twitter feeds — I knew the right-wing news sites would fail to cover the story right away. Even in the middle of the night, I decided to search for the word “Alton” in some of the search bars on these sites. Got nothing. Not even just a “Hey, This Just Happened” basic reporting of the incident. (It wasn’t until the next day that a lot of these sites finally began to report the story — some fairer than others.)
It’s why, a few days later, on the night of the Dallas cop shootings, I knew these same news sites would go bonkers with over-reporting. There were reports about mutliple shooters, the sky falling, and Martians about to take over the world. It’s as if hell broke loose because there was a narrative that perked their readers right up.
But I expected that. And you should have expected that. You can’t trust the media just because they share something with powerful words in the headline. Everything has some sort of slant and bias.
In fact, you can’t even trust your local police departments anymore — especially after the Dallas Police Department tweeted a photo that night of the wrong shooting suspect:
The reason why the right-wing media is so dangerous is because of the rhetoric they spew and the vigilantism they spawn. Take, for example, the November 2015 terror attack at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs where a white male gunman killed three people and injured nine others. This was not an isolated incident. Rather, it was part of an overall increase of pro-life extremist attacks that year after a heavily-edited video went viral, accusing Planned Parenthood of “selling baby parts.”
What a shocker: Getting people riled up can inspire them to do really atrocious things. The media is great at that.
But so are some activists. Especially in the Black Lives Matter movement community.
For those of you who follow Shaun King on social media, you know he’s a smart and savvy dude. Not only is he a Black Lives Matter leader, but he’s also the senior justice writer at the New York Daily News. He posts often about the things closest to his heart, including race relations and social justice.
But on the night of the Dallas shootings, I knew I wouldn’t see a post from him that condemned that act of violence against police officers who were just trying to keep things orderly. I knew it as I logged into Facebook. And I knew it as I went to his page.
In succession, here were his posts:
(It wasn’t until 12 hours after the shooting that King wrote a heartfelt message out of respect to the Dallas Police Department while letting readers know he had a new article forthcoming.)
12 hours, though? Really?
Anybody who’s ever been passionate about something could understand the overtones of Shaun King’s early morning posts. There was a mission here, and nothing was going to come in the way of that mission.
But if your mission to let people know how bad cops are blinds you from understanding the Black Lives Matter movement’s vision is larger than just rhetoric about cop stuff, then you’ve lost your way.
It’s especially appalling when you realize Shaun King was a pastor up until a few years ago. How much of an effort would it have taken to pen something like “Killing cops is not what we’re about” or “Everybody, remain peaceful and understanding during this chaos”? How hard would it have been to understand his unique position as a leader — and a phenomenally eloquent one to boot — and let people know that Black Lives Matter isn’t about pitting black people against cops, that it isn’t about letting guns speak louder than words, and that it isn’t about beating a dead horse so much that you forget to still love people?
Right-wing media — and mainstream media, in general — fails us. Because they spin a rose until all you’re left with is the thorns. But leaders like Shaun King sometimes fail us, too.
Because they’re so lost in the narrative of “We can’t risk losing momentum now” that they forget that Black Lives Matter is bigger than themselves. It’s bigger than just being about cops, too.
At the end of the day, it’s about how we all can look at each other like human beings, eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder, on the same footing… and live to talk about it.
It took the Dallas Police Department 17 hours to delete a tweet of a man they had already publicly exonerated. It took Shaun King over 12 hours to just tell everyone to chill out… and love people.
Don’t tell me he wanted to wait for all the facts to come out — he couldn’t possibly have had enough facts to instantly exonerate the BLM movement like he did. In fact, he rarely ever is afraid to speak his mind on social media. Ever. The moment there’s a story, he’ll draw his line in the sand and belt out his proverbial battle cry.
And that’s fine.
But getting people riled up can inspire them to do really atrocious things. The media is great at that. And so are some activists.
Disrupters have used social media to rally anti-Trump protestors together; some only showing up to commit acts of violence.
Maybe the Dallas shooter wasn’t radicalized by all the social media rhetoric. Maybe he was.
But it doesn’t take a mathematician to understand that when you have a major fraction of the population that doesn’t fully grasp the meaning behind your rallying cries and your protests and your marches, tensions can lead to a toxic brew.
I’ve seen too many hateful, spiteful posts from people online to know I should be wary of the few who are blindly using the Black Lives Matter hashtags and the few who are asking about where to buy Black Lives Matter shirts.
If 70% of an organization just doesn’t understand what the organization is all about, the onus is on the leaders to recast the vision and remind them. Us. Everyone.
The onus is on leaders like Shaun King to remind people that all it takes is a few veering in the wrong direction to turn the Black Lives Matter movement into a hate group.
And that’s not the vision — the last time I checked.
Time for the Truth
I want to see the Black Lives Matter movement thrive and succeed. Its vision is something I believe in.
And as an Indian American, I especially understand just how much my freedoms have been afforded me by the blood of black Americans that came — and went — before me.
There are things we can do as friends, colleagues, and fellow human beings to make sure systemic racism stops.
But first we have to understand this is bigger than just about police brutality.
Systemic racism rears its head when job applicants with white-sounding names get 50% more callbacks and have to send 33% fewer resumes to get one callback — compared to those with black-sounding names.
Systemic racism rears its head when decriminalization of marijuana — which was supposed to have made enforcement more equitable — has benefited white smokers far more than the black population.
Systemic racism rears its head when the American justice system is so skewed that rich black kids are more likely to go to prison than poor white kids.
Granted, not every cop is wretched. There are those that respond to noise complaints in black neighborhoods by joining pickup basketball games in the street. There are those that sing lullabies to toddlers to comfort and distract them after their father just died in a car crash.
Not every cop is wretched.
But there are bigots among you. And the system that enables them is inherently flawed.
This isn’t an “All cops are out to get us” thing even though there are really terrible, negligent, bigoted cops in uniform around us every day.
But it’s more complicated than that.
And remember the stats we’ve already gone through. Tons of people — just like you — who either have heard of the BLM movement or wholeheartedly support it… don’t actually know the nuances regarding it.
If you truly support it, try to learn the pillars of the BLM movement. Learn to state the vision of the movement without having to think about it.
And, for Christ’s sake, demand more from your leaders.
The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference – They aim to to strengthen the individual and collective capacity of thought leaders and activists in the faith community, academia, and community through a combination of education, advocacy, and activism
American Civil Liberties Union – They aim to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution and laws of the United States
All of Us or None – They fight for the rights of formerly- and currently-incarcerated people and their families
National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights – They aim to hold media outlets accountable for their reporting, while encouraging fair and impartial coverage of courts, decisions, and how this impacts Americans
Race Forward – They aim to build awareness, solutions, and leadership for racial justice by generating transformative ideas, information, and experiences
Understand that a better world starts with love, not hate.