At the University of Connecticut there is a hunk of stone on campus called “Spirit Rock” that students will, from time to time, spray paint various slogans on. Amongst those phrases this year was, unsurprisingly, Black Lives Matter. Then, just under a month ago, someone else (or several someones) spray painted over the “Black” portion of the message to leave it as “Lives Matter.” This link describes it in far more detail.
Now, Lives Matter is a fine slogan. A finer sentiment. But it’s also besides the point. To alter “Black Lives Matter” in that way (or to correct someone who uses it by saying “All Lives Matter”) is not unlike, in the midst of a discussion about the Japanese internment camps during World War II, submitting the observation that Italians have been the victims of oppression when they first arrived in the United States and often have to suffer through seeing themselves depicted in pop culture as only amounting to a stereotyped archetype like criminal or loudmouth. You have stated something factual—Italians as second wave immigrants were treated harshly by the already established Western Europeans that had preceded them and the most popular depictions of Italians in culture do trend towards the stereotypic. However, it’s not really germane to the discussion at hand.
Similarly, indeed, all lives do matter. And good on you for recognizing that. But that’s not the discussion we are having right now.
I don’t intend to be flip or tar and feather those who have championed “All Lives Matter.” I imagine most, if not all, are coming at it from a true hearted place. I can understand the impulse to push for that inclusive language. It can be hard to feel left out and I imagine to those who hear, “Black Lives Matter” say or want to say, “Actually, All Lives Matter,”are doing so in part because there is a feeling of exclusivity for them in “Black Lives Matter”—a sense that to say that somehow implies that all the other non-black lives do not.
Except that’s not what it means at all.
To take this to an incredibly reductive level, imagine you, me, and several of your friends are standing around one day and one of you friends just starts to tear into Spider-Man comics. Just shredding them, belittling them in every possible way, and I finally tell him, “Hey, I like Spider-Man comics, knock it off.”
Does anything in what I said imply I only like Spider-Man comics? That I think they should be the only comics made? No. And so it is with Black Lives Matter. No one is saying, for instance, White Lives DON’T Matter. They are just emphasizing that Black Lives Matter too.
The reasons are two-fold. One is we are in a precarious place right now with the amount of police involved killings of black men and boys. Might there be white men and boys unfairly subjected to excessive force or ill-advised discharge of firearms (read: beaten or shot to death)? Maybe. And if there are, we should talk about them too. But, right now, we know there have been controversial killings that involved black men and boys, so that’s the discussion taking place, that’s what’s being protested by saying the words Black Lives Matter.
Now you may find fault with the assertion that anything illegal or untoward is going on with these deaths, but that’s a whole other debate and not one I’ll engage in here except to say, if that is your position, assert that then. Don’t seek to undermine this rallying phrase by trying to change it to “All,” just say what you mean, that you disagree these deaths were wrong or are an epidemic or whatever your position may be. Engage in the debate you really want to have.
Anyway, the second purpose of Black Lives Matter, I confess, is more of a theory on my part that something I’ve have seen specifically cited but I believe it to be true so I’ll put it out there. It is an affirmation for a community that feels under assault, reduced, ignored, and oppressed. It is as much a reminder to each other as it is the world. Because to not say Black Lives Matter, to know give that sentiment voice, is to yield to hopelessness, to buy into a version of reality in which they do not. When one feels targeted or simply not cared for by people who they should be able to count on—say officers of the law—it can be easy to give in to despair and cynicism. It can be easy to accept a narrative that casts you as invisible, as meaningless. In this way, Black Lives Matter is, to steal an expression, a raging against the dying of the light. It is a rallying cry to remind oneself and other black men, women, girls, and boys that no matter how dire it seems, no matter the horror on the news, in the streets, and in the courtrooms, none of that can change the fundamental truth that their lives matter.
Black Lives Matter is not about you unless you are a.) Black or b.) working to harm or kill Black people. Recognize that and realize that Black America affirming their inherent humanity and their right to live does nothing to deny you that recognition or that right.