You may be surprised that we’re still here.
It has been 17 months since Michael Brown lost his life in Ferguson, Mo., and protestors took to the tear-gassed, blood-stained streets near my home in St. Louis county to call for justice and revive this black freedom movement. Since then, the Black Lives Matter movement has gone from an unpopular effort to a cause célèbre. And along the way, some have predicted the movement’s demise.
After all, we challenge traditional norms of social movements. Our movement is decentralized and creative. We stand in Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, but we have no single leader. We innovate with new media, modernize civil disobedience, and maintain pressure in the streets and the policy table simultaneously.
And I can tell you, unequivocally, that we aren’t going anywhere.
We will continue to fight because in 2015 nearly 1,200 people were killed by police. Last year young black men—like my brother, who holds a Master’s degree from an Ivy League university—were nine times more likely to be killed by police than other Americans, despite his age demographic only comprising 2% of the population.
We will continue to fight because certain lives of color remain disproportionately vulnerable. Many transgender women of color still suffer humiliation and harm; many black college students must still fight for their inclusion; and many children of color are still more likely to grow up in poverty than white children.
We will continue to fight because in Cleveland, a government institution has again failed to secure justice for Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old gunned down by police in 2014. The day the grand jury returned its non-indictment, it felt as though Tamir had died again. And had Tamir lived, the odds of racial injustice altering his life’s trajectory would have still loomed large.
For all these reasons and more, quitting isn’t an option.
Who are we?
While we are mostly black, we are diverse in belief, experience and practice. We are thankful to the generations that toiled before us, though at times, we experience the intergenerational challenges that have been repeated throughout history. We reject the notion that dressing, speaking or acting in less confrontational ways will save us-because respectability and accomplishment won’t protect us from the perils of blackness in America. We are Jews, Gentiles, Muslims and the non-religious. We are cisgender, transgender, and non-binary; straight and LGBTQ. We are college graduates and high school dropouts. Some of us have been trained as professionals; we have all trained by protest. We are many colors and full of dedicated, consistent allies who stand with us.
We all demand to be able to be, and be freely. Love for ourselves brought us to this movement. Love for one another keeps us here.
We will continue to exert pressure for change and justice using every tool we have among us, from city to city. For example, at Campaign Zero, an activist collective of which I’m a part, we have proposed community-designed policy solutions to end police violence. There are many such local and national efforts throughout the Black Lives Matter movement that leverage art, student activism and provocative protest to collectively create the world in which we want to live.
We are not a scattered group of misdirected people, nor are we narrowly focused. We have always understood that police violence is but one fatal branch of a larger tree rooted in systemic oppression and racism. Our mission is not to just break the branch-but to uproot the tree, destroying the many inequities that spring from it. As we mature, we will continue to take on the myriad issues that brought us to this point of pain and determination and that fuel our movement forward.
Only a radically inclusive, equitable and democratic society will uproot that tree. That is a difficult and seemingly nebulous concept, but that doesn’t mean it is not our responsibility to strive for it.
We often hear from people who ask: How can we help? Here are four ways:
1. Start small. The incredulous nature of the Cleveland ruling or Walter Scott’s death offers an opportunity to consider that maybe-just maybe-there is something wrong. Interrogate those feelings by researching more.
2. Listen, intently and without invalidation, to those of us most affected by injustice. Leave your hero complex at home: we need no one to save us, but do invite you to stand with us with respect, humility and commitment.
3. Examine your power.There is some space, some corner of the world, in which you lead. With your children, classmates or loved ones; with your employees, volunteers, congregants or clients, you possess the ability to influence how others live. Will you challenge the everyday racism you hear in the carpool line, or walk away? Will you challenge bigotry when it sits down at your kitchen table, or choose comfort? Will you institute company practices that prioritize true equity, or will you settle for cosmetic diversity and tokenize people of color?
4. Support urgent systemic changes. Public officials derive their power from we, the people. We, the protesters, have to not let them forget it.
We’ve taken our message to the White House and presidential campaigns alike, and we’ve refused to settle for the status quo. We need more than better data or non-lethal weaponry, though both are necessary steps. We need economic policies that will disproportionately alleviate problems for those disproportionately affected: people of color. We need smart policy scored by racial impact tests that predict unintended consequences before everyday people suffer. We need systems of accountability and transparency, embracing radical democracy from local municipalities to Washington, putting the people back in charge. We need to create safe communities from the ground up, instead of over-police them from the top down. We need to elect—and become—public officials with the courage to do what is just, even when it’s not politically expedient. With our collective voices and votes, we must push to create the political will to solve the problems this movement has helped lay bare.
We often say a society should be judged by how it treats “the least of these.” But the fabric of our collective destiny depends on our commitment to eradicate inequity and render inequality irrelevant. If you believe in democracy and freedom, the current status quo—which benefits some over others—should infuriate you.
Racial justice is not just our cause—it’s an American cause. And because of that, the movement will continue.