How I Came to Understand the Black Lives Matter Movement/ #BlackLivesMatter
January 5, 2015
Ever since the protests started after the Ferguson, MO grand jury decision, and then the protests in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio after the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice, I have been trying to think of how to explain how I feel. I saw the "Black Lives Matter" slogan and then I saw people, mainly white people, change it to "All Lives Matter." Now with the police shootings we also see "Blue Lives Matter." I knew that the need some people had to change "Black Lives Matter" into something else was an issue, but I could not articulate why. When I tried to talk about it, people assumed that because I support the need for the slogan "Black Lives Matter" that I am silently saying that no one else matters. So, I thought about the situation from my own perspective to try and help explain. Often when we cannot understand the position of another person, it is helpful to take a step back and see how we would feel in a similar situation.
My work against stigma of mental illness could easily be summarized by a slogan that says "People With Mental Illness Matter." Really, that is what I am saying, that people with mental illness matter just as much as people without mental illness and we should be treated with the same respect and care. Now, often when I write about stigma, there is the inevitable person who says "Your position would be easier to swallow for people who don't agree with you if you were not so polarizing and said, instead, that all people should be treated with respect and care." Well, that always bothers me. Just because I am raising the issue of stigma against people with mental illness does not mean that I don't think all people should be treated well. Also, I am speaking to one issue, the poor treatment of people with mental illness in our society. To name it as anything else dilutes and ignores the problem. This is why many people of color were offended when "Black Lives Matter" was changed to "All Lives Matter." The change skirted the real issue being raised: that black lives matter less than white lives in our criminal justice system.
My home congregation in Ohio hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner at the church, and Rev. Dr. Wayne B. Arnason recently gave a sermon which addressed some of the responses they have received due to the banner. Rev. Arnason says:
“Most of the people who have talked to us negatively about the banner in front of the church have asked us why it doesn’t say “All Lives Matter”. The reason is that “All Lives Matter” says nothing about the issue at hand – which is whether there is systemic racism in the justice system that makes it difficult for any black person or any other person of color be treated the same way that a white person does. Do all lives matter? Of course they do!! Who could argue with that? But holding up a sign or banner that says “All Lives Matter” is the moral equivalent of saying “Why can’t we all just get along?” It’s a deflection from focusing on the issue at hand, and it plays into the hand of those who just wish this issue would go away.”
All the slogan "Black Lives Matter" is asking us to do is to look at and combat the systemic racism in our criminal justice system. It is not saying that police don't matter or women don't matter or white people don't matter. It is just raising an issue that has reached a tipping point.
I embrace "Black Lives Matter" because it brings to light a pressing issue that needs to change. I embrace it because it is hard for me, as a white person, to fully understand how I am much safer in the criminal justice system than my friends of color are, and I need to understand. I embrace it because I need to read the research and become more aware. I embrace it because, due to mental illness, I know what it is like to be told you are worthless because of who you are- not only are you worthless, but that violence against you is warranted. I cannot even imagine how much worse that is for people of color in our society, on a daily basis, but the “Black Lives Matter” slogan is making me more aware and more compassionate.
(If you really want some more, fantastic, reflection on this issue, please read all of Rev. Dr. Wayne Arnason and Rev. Kathleen Rolenz’s joint sermon “Do All Live Matter?” In the sermon they talk about the banner at the church as well as how they attended street protests for the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio and the “Sea of Blue Rally” in support of Cleveland police officers.)