At 12:15 pm on February 25, 2020, members of Suffolk University’s Black Student Union (BSU) shuffled into the Stoll room following the mouth watering aroma of savory soul food. We all quickly found our seats and darted towards a table on the left hand side of the room. A line formed of hungry students waiting to heap their plates full of beef empanadas, baked macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and corn bread. But soul food was not the only thing we were there for. Sitting in our seats, surrounded by our fellow BSU friends and mountains of food, we eagerly awaited the arrival of members from the Boston Chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM). As the two members walked into the noisy room, the few individuals in line at the laid out buffet quickly grabbed their food and found their seats as the rest of the room gradually faded into silence.
Once the members had gotten themselves situated and comfortable at a table in the front of the room, they welcomed all of us and introduced themselves as Tone and Martin. After introducing themselves to all of us, they went on to explain what BLM was and all of the amazing things the Boston chapter had been doing in our community as of recently. They spoke about a few events that they hosted, including the Deeper Than Water press conference and the Know Your Rights workshop.
The Deeper Than Water event was a press conference back in November that served as a platform to publicly launch a campaign to hold the state of Massachusetts accountable for the toxic water crisis in Massachusetts prisons. This campaign essentially demanded that the DOC and Commissioner Turco provide clean, safe water to all prisoners. The press conference was held in front of the Suffolk County House of Corrections and speakers included former prisoners from MCI Norfolk. The Know Your Rights workshop was BLM Boston’s most recent event. The event was a partnership with ACLU Massachusetts (American Civil Liberties Union) that reviewed what individuals should do during run ins with the police.
After discussing events that BLM Boston hosted and strongly encouraging all of us to become activists in one way or another for causes we were passionate about, Tone and Martin opened up the event to a Q&A and discussion. During the Q&A, the most important question that was asked was, “What is the most difficult challenge each of you face being active members of BLM?” This question led the Q&A to a challenge that remained the central topic of discussion for the majority of the event, which was a challenge that many social movements have faced: controlling the narrative. Both Tone and Martin agreed that controlling the narrative of BLM was the most difficult challenge that they faced on a daily basis. They mentioned how individuals and organizations often times tried to change the public’s understanding of what BLM stood for, its beliefs, and its goals by putting out misinformation concerning the movement’s values and beliefs. For example, on February 3, Boston Police Patrolmen’s Union President, Michael Leary, sent a letter to Boston Teachers Union (BTU) President, Jessica Tang, urging her to withdraw her union’s participation from the national BLM at School Week of Action. Leary wrote in his letter, “Vilifying those who serve the public as police officers only increases distrust and puts police and citizens at risk of increased violence from an emboldened group of angry anti-police individuals”(Leary 2). This is just one example out of many attempts that aim to demonize BLM and put out false claims regarding the social movement’s cause, which is to fight for justice for POC and to demand police accountability.
BLM is not the only social movement that has been faced with the challenge of controlling their narrative. For example, the feminist movement is often misinterpreted as a social movement that discriminates against men and that advocates for women superiority. Many individuals refer to feminists as “man-haters” when that is so far from the truth. Although there are women out there that use the term “feminism” to promote their hatred towards males, it is not a belief that the movement stands behind. Feminism is “the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes”(Brunell 1). Often times the values and beliefs of social movements are distorted by stereotyping. Stereotyping is a powerful weapon and is used to undermine the message of a social movement by claiming it shares the same beliefs as another social group that shares basic characteristics such as, race and gender.
So how can social movements tackle the challenge of controlling their narrative? During their meeting with Suffolk University’s BSU, members of BLM Boston, Tone and Martin, gave some suggestions and spoke about what actions BLM has taken in order to stay in control of their own narrative. In the past, BLM has maintained their narrative through its actions. The social movement has shaped the direction of the movement by hosting workshops, press conferences, rallies, and protests that illustrate its beliefs. But sometimes more needs to be said and done. For example, in response to the Boston Police Union’s attack on Black Lives Matter at School movement, BLM put out a statement condemning Michael Leary and called upon Boston Police Patrolmen’s Union to withdraw their letter. “Black Lives Matter at School is a national movement for equity, inclusion, and the uplifting of Black students, not an attack on police, and deserves to be supported by everyone who believes in justice and an empowering education”(BLM: A Response 2020). Controlling the narrative is a challenge that many social movements have faced in the past and will continue to face as long as there are people that oppose their beliefs. However, that should not discourage social movements from continuing to speak out and fight against injustices.
Blmatschool. “A Response to the Boston Police Union Attack on Black Lives Matter at School: ‘This Is a Movement for Equity, Inclusion, and the Uplifting of Black Students.’” Black Lives Matter At School, Black Lives Matter, 13 Feb. 2020, blacklivesmatteratschool.com/2020/02/13/a-response-to-the-boston-police-union-attack-on-black-lives-matter-at-school-this-is-a-movement-for-equity-inclusion-and-the-uplifting-of-black-students/.
Brunell, Laura, and Elinor Burkett. “Feminism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 16 Dec. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/feminism.
Leary, Michael. Letter to Jessica Tang. 3 February 2020. Dorchester, Massachusetts.
*Photo by Kayla Armstrong