The year of 2020 has been nothing short of long, strange and tumultuous. Americans have been dodging punches from all corners of the ring and are undoubtedly tired. One of the most sorrowful and grueling challenges has been that of the fight for Black lives. America has been seeing Black lives being taken in extremely graphic and public ways. Because of this, Americans are demanding accountability like never before. Marches, demonstrations, social media campaigns and wildly successful fundraising events have been bringing the fight for racial justice to the forefront of domestic policy reform. Since the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2014, it has exploded to become one of the most powerful contemporary human rights movements of all time. During a webinar sponsored by NYU, participants heard from Opal Tometi, an activist and co-founder of the movement. With this added layer of understanding, one can see Black Lives Matter as not just a movement, but as a symbol of American democracy as a whole.
Even through a computer screen, Opal radiates a beautiful energy. She is poised and elegant, but most importantly, it is clear that she is kind, gracious and humble. She thanked the hosts for having her, as well as the participants for taking the time to listen to her. The way she speaks shows just how passionate she is about the movement. That passion is driven largely by her own experiences as a Black woman in America. Despite facing many hardships from a young age, she holds exuded much positivity, optimism and gratitude. She has shaped her experiences into a career of accomplishing deeply impactful work. She stated that “life politicized me,” after growing up in a tight-knit Nigerian community in Phoenix and witnessing constant harassment from ICE (Tometi, 2020). All these experiences slowly shaped her to be observant, passionate and driven for justice. It was not until the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013 that Tometi and two other women began a movement that would change the world. Like many other members of the Black community, the Zimmerman verdict was personal. Trayvon Martin’s life had ended, and there was no justice. Tometi remembers crying outside of a movie theater upon receiving the news. Almost immediately, posts marked with #blacklivesmatter began to trend.
When Tometi speaks of the goals of the movement at the time, they were simple. “We want to live in a world where no family has to experience what the Martin family experiences,” she said ( 2020). Overall, the movement was about mobilizing people, getting them involved at the local level, and creating a space that is unapologetically Black. This is exactly what they did when they organized the freedom ride to Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown. The overwhelming interest and support for the movement proved just how many people wanted to see change. Today, Opal says the goals have been achieved and she is happy with how far it has spread. As BLM continues to evolve, it is garnering support worldwide. It is a movement for all, and she stresses that. People from all walks of life are participating with a common goal for justice. The bottom line says Tometi, “it’s just necessary.”
Black Lives Matter not only serves as a unifying and supportive force for those passionate about reform. It is also a symbol of American democracy. It is a platform for people to express their rights to assembly, free speech and redress. The ability for people to gather in unity to support this cause, take to the streets and speak their minds is granted in the Constitution. However, these rights are slowly being encroached on. Opal discussed the implications of being the largest movement of its kind, acknowledging that with more support comes more opposition. She “all of us should be paying attention when a nation decides to criminalize those who have the audacity to speak out” (Tometi, 2020). Her words could not be timelier.
In a report published by NPR, African Americans were still the most targeted minority group in relation to hate crimes in 2018 (Treisman, 2019). Personal experiences of the Black community also support the reality that race relations are not improving the way some would like to believe. The Pew Research Institute reported that 88% of Black people surveyed believed that America needed to keep changing in order for them to be equal with white people, yet 43% did not believe these changes would ever occur (Pew Research, 2016). Approximately 6 in 10 Americans thought race relations were bad in general (Pew Research, 2019). To further this, 53% of Americans believe they were getting worse in 2019 (Pew Research, 2019). These figures should be raising alarm. If so many Americans truly view the situation this way, then what measures of positive change can we see?
A publication in an American security blog is quoted saying that “the racism paves the way for the authoritarianism by another means as well: It breeds distrust of state institutions and the democratic traditions that have governed them” (Hathaway and Markovits, 2020). This perspective could very well explain the impacts of President Trump’s ideologies since he took office in 2016. His platform built on the notion of “draining the swamp” and protecting the American people from the perceived danger of certain immigrants married two considerable threats to democracy: the idea that race should impact advantage in society, and the notion that the government cannot or should not be trusted.
The impacts of these ideals are painting a dire picture. Increasing civil unrest shows that while most Americans want change, many are not ready or willing to face it. This unwillingness is supported at the highest level, with people like President Trump frequently maligning the movements and their supporters. These statements are problematic on many fronts. Primarily, they paint an unnecessarily negative picture of organizations like Black Lives Matter. With a majority of protests being peaceful, the focus on looting and property destruction creates a distorted and violent picture that demonizes BIPOC and BLM supporters. It undermines the leadership and legitimacy of well-established organizations founded by the people. As a result of this and the state-sanctioning of violence, anti-BLM groups receive an unspoken message that they too, can retaliate. A harrowing example of this is the series of events that unfolded in Kenosha, Wisconsin in late August. After days of heated protests, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse took to the streets with a semi-automatic weapon ultimately killing two and injuring another. Even more alarmingly, prominent political figures were not quick to condemn the extra-judiciary actions. Instances like this are not acceptable in a democracy as developed as the United States. The fear that is instilled in people upon hearing of these egregious acts only silences those who need to be heard.
These instances of heightened and brutal violence against those who participate in civil rights movements are the results of deeply engrained institutionalized racism and xenophobia. Going back to what Opal Tometi said regarding how the government treats people who dissent, we must all keep a watchful eye during these times. America is quick to intervene in other states under the guise of promoting democracy, yet it seems that its own leaders are incapable of holding a mirror to themselves. The very first rights granted in the Constitution are being denied right now. In an ideal America, there would be no need to protest for Black lives, but this is not the case. The masses want change and forward movement, yet they are silenced when trying to express that. If Americans cannot speak out in support of people’s lives without the fear of being harassed, harmed or killed, then something is glaringly wrong. A true democracy is one in which the people can not only speak but can be heard as well. The answers to these problems are not simple, and they will certainly take years to find. Until this time, we must not forget why movements like Black Lives Matter exist: to achieve justice overall, and to stand in solidarity with those who need it most. With every passing day, we are shown more reasons that support reform so that all Americans can work towards being equal. The American people must continue to demand accountability for the shortcomings of the state. Institutions like Black Lives Matter are simply necessary, because without justice, there is no peace.
Hathaway, Oona, and Daniel Markovits. “Black Lives Matter Might Just Rescue American Democracy.” Just Security, 17 July 2020, www.justsecurity.org/70805/black-lives-matter-might-just-rescue-american-democracy/.
Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Anna Brown and Kiana Cox. “How Americans See the State of Race Relations.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, 31 Dec. 2019, www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/04/09/how-americans-see-the-state-of-race-relations/.
“On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, 27 Aug. 2020, www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/on-views-of-race-and-inequality-blacks-and-whites-are-worlds-apart/.
Tomato, Opal, et al. “Virtual Talk with Opal Tometi.” 6 Oct. 2020.
Treisman, Rachel. “FBI Reports Dip In Hate Crimes, But Rise In Violence.” NPR, NPR, 12 Nov. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/11/12/778542614/fbi-reports-dip-in-hate-crimes-but-rise-in-violence.