The Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) was founded on July 13th, 2013. When BLM was founded, 2013 had already seen the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin’s murder caused Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometiwas to found BLM. They wrestled with the question, how is it possible that a white police officer can shoot and kill a young Black boy in broad daylight and not be charged? Not surprisingly, they weren’t the only ones asking themselves this question. BLM’s mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives. Many know BLM as a hashtag that is frequently trending on twitter, but it is much more. BLM is a decentralized group of Black folks and their allies across the world working to create a world that works equitably for everyone.
More often than not, when we learn about American history in school, we are learning about one version of it. The version that always allows for the white man’s redemption and removes any possible white man’s ideas has not done enough to correct the past mistakes. The textbooks teachers use to teach students are outdated, imperialistic, and filled with lies. The textbooks reflect the sad reality of America’s inability to reckon with slavery and the realities of our countries past. When we are learning about slavery, we aren’t learning about slavery. Of course, we know about the slave trade and how Africans were brought to the United States and sold to the highest bidder, becoming their property. We learn about how slaves were given Sundays off to go to church and be with their families. We don’t hear about how over 12.5 million slaves were sent from Africa to the United States, and less than 10.7 million of them survived the journey. We don’t learn about how once slaves made it to the East Coast, they were separated to ensure that those who spoke the same language or tribe were together. The story of slaves having Sundays off to church with their families is an almost impossible one. Even if slaves from the same family were bought by the same master and lived on the same plantation (which is highly unlikely), the likelihood that they were given a day off to rest and go to church is even lower. Of course, a history written by violent, barbaric oppressors would try and make slavery not look as bad as it indeed was. Why would they voluntarily expose how they treated Black people worse than dogs, made them work in fields from sunrise to sunset, gave them one pair of clothes per year, made them sleep outside in the winter with no blankets, and treated Black women as their sex slaves.
Slavery may be over, but the certainly doesn’t mean the struggles of being a Black person in America are. We have a president who has actively denied the existence of prejudice against Black people, saying things like “a well-educated Black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. I think sometimes a Black may think they don’t have an advantage or this and that I’ve said on one occasion, even about myself, if I were starting today, I would love to be a well-educated Black, because I believe they do have an actual advantage.” He and others that share his beliefs that Black people don’t face any struggles in today’s America and are actually at an advantage because of things like affirmative action, government housing, and company racial quotas are shielding themselves from a more damming reality. The reality in which Black households have 10 cents for every 1 dollar in a white household and where 88% of people stopped by police in New York City are Black and Latinx people, while 10% involved white people. Of that, 70% were innocent, and Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women. Structural racism continues to affect Black people in all possible aspects of life. From education and jobs to housing and healthcare and the criminal justice system, Black people live in an America that wasn’t created by them and continues to work against them. The systems that slave owners put into preventing Black people from genuinely being equal and free ladder have left a legacy like no other. Just because we can all use the same bathrooms doesn’t mean we have the opportunities and are treated the same.
Trayvon Martin was 17 years old when he was murdered back in 2013. When most of us think of a 17-year-old, we think of them being in their junior year focusing on their grades, college, and extracurriculars. Most of us don’t imagine a 17-year-old walking home from a convenience store is followed by a racist police officer, someone who is supposed to keep us safe, never returning home. There were varying reactions from both the public and the families of Martin and Zimmerman. Then-President Barack Obama famously said, “You know; if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Members of the Black community were rightly angered at the verdict because they saw their sons and daughters in Martin. Not only was an innocent Black boy murdered, but his murderer was released and acquitted of all charges. Though Zimmerman and his family had received large amounts of hate and death threats, they had people supporting them. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was famously quoted saying, “Zimmerman is not being treated fairly.” The NRA stands behind Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws saying that they permit “lawful people to defend themselves, and deter would-be murderers, rapists and robbers.” Trayvon Martin’s death created a new generation of civil rights activists, most of whom were millennials and genzers at the time of his murder. Despite all of the support given to Zimmerman, the police department, and the court ruling, Black folks, and their allies had faith that such an event would never happen again.
They were wrong because the following year in July saw the murder of Eric Garner in New York City. The encounter began with an undercover police officer questioning Garner about selling illegal cigarettes, which Garner denied. Officer Daniel Pantaleo then began to try and handcuff Garner and Garner started to say, “don’t touch me, please.” Things then escalated when Pantaleo wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck and proceeded to bring him towards the ground. Then Pantaleo used his hands to push Garner’s face into the ground, and while this was happening, Garner was heard saying, “I can’t breathe” eleven times. Afterward, officers called an ambulance, saying Garner was having trouble breathing. While they waited for the ambulance to show up, Garner laid on the ground still, visibly not breathing and handcuffed. Once the ambulance arrived, they did not put him on oxygen or give him adequate medical attention. Garner was pronounced dead an hour later at the hospital after having a heart attack in the ambulance. A month later, on August 9th Micheal Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old Black, was shot and killed after getting into an altercation with a police officer. Brown’s body remained fully exposed in the middle of the street for over four hours. The days following Brown’s death saw unrest across Furguson that had several waves lasting an average of two weeks. The protests sparked conversations about Black lives in the United States and how they are treated in an America where the police are over militarized. After the failure to indict officer Darren Wilson these conversations led to questions about the criminal justice system.
The general public’s support for BLM didn’t die out entirely, but between 2015 and 2019, it was substantially less than between 2013 and 2014. Everything changed once the video recording of the murder of George Floyd was released to the public on May 25th, 2020. Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Minnesota after he was approached by police to buy a cigarette pack with a counterfeit 20 dollar bill. Two employees from Cup Foods called the police shortly after closing, citing that Floyd was “awfully drunk” and used “fake bills.” Soon after the police’s arrival, things began to escalate rapidly. Officer Thomas K. Lane approached Floyd’s window and asked him to show his hands. When Floyd didn’t comply, Lane drew his gun and ordered Floyd outside of the car. Lane proceeded to handcuff him and sit him on the sidewalk. Lane then questioned why Floyd was acting “erratic,” and Floyd replied, saying he was scared. Once officer Derek Chauvin arrives, things take a dramatic turn for the worse. Chauvin made the conscious decision to hold his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and only removed it when medical professionals arrived and asked him to. Before the ambulance’s arrival, Floyd was pleading with Chauvin to release him and repeatedly stated, “I can’t breathe.” Instead of telling his fellow officer that he should let Floyd go because he was already handcuffed, Tou Thao was recorded telling witnesses, “this is why you don’t do drugs, kids.” Instead of helping Floyd since he wasn’t a threat office, Thao chose to sit by and watch his fellow officer murder an innocent man. Though the case is yet to go to trial as of August 29th, 2020, the charges were as follows: Derek Chauvin second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane, and Tou Thao aiding and abetting second-degree murder. In the wake of Floyd’s death, people took to the streets to express their outrage and disappointment with law enforcement, police accountability, the criminal justice system, structural racism, and the anti-Black racism in America.
Even though there is an ongoing global pandemic in several cities across the United States, over 21 million people had attended at least one BLM protest by mid-June. What distinguished the George Floyd protests from the protests that happened in Ferguson, Missouri, after Micheal Brown and Baltimore, Maryland, after Freddie Gray was the overwhelming response from the general public and lawmakers and politicians. Also, the protests in May, June, and July were not only for George Floyd. Black people were protesting for all the David McAtee’s, George Floyd’s, Dreasjon Reed’s, Michael Ramos’s, Breonna Taylor’s, Manuel Elijah Ellis’s, Philando Castile’s, Sandra Bland’s, Janisha Fonville’s, Tamir Rice’s, and Eric Garners of the world. One protestor was quoted saying, “today is about innocent people who were halfway through their process, we don’t know what George Floyd could have achieved, we don’t know what Sandra Bland could have achieved, but today we’re going to make sure that won’t be an alien thought to our young ones.” In addition to the protesting nationwide, the conditions of 2020 saw the birth of a new wave of social media activism and the expansion of using social media as a means for activism.
The deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott all saw people take to the streets protesting, lawmakers promising change, and non-Black folks showing their support for BLM. The death of George Floyd was no exception. Unfortunately, it wasn’t only the good things that were replicated. A week after the murder of Floyd, there was a hashtag on Instagram labeled “blackouttuesday.” This was a hashtag that millions of people on Instagram used to caption black squares that they were posting. These posts were supposedly supposed to raise awareness about BLM and speak against the violence that America subjected Black people to for the past 400 years. Whether the intentions of those posting them were pure or not is irrelevant because they were useless. What is posting a black square on a Tuesday going to do? Nothing. It doesn’t provide useful information such as petitions to sign, companies to boycott/support, information about officers who haven’t been charged, or places to donate. All it does is give people an out. If someone posts something with the hashtag “blackouttuesday” they can self identify as an ally while doing something below the bare minimum. For some context, over 14.6 million people posted something on Instagram with the caption “#blackouttuesday.” It took over 130 days for the petition to get Breonna Taylor’s murderers in jail to reach 10 million signatures. Lawmakers and politicians are veterans of preaching one thing and doing the complete opposite. Taking action towards holding law enforcement accountable and dismantling systems that actively work against Black people are no exception. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stated that “Today with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the House is honoring his life and the lives of all those killed by police brutality and pledging, never again.” Even though the act was passed, it did not prevent the shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23rd, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Slavery and segregation were defining moments in a black person’s story struggle in America, but they indeed weren’t the last. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his book titled Between the World and Me, “You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is a real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that a repressive minority imposed it. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The police’s problem is not that they are fascist pigs but that majoritarian pigs rule our country.” How I America “the land of the free and the home of the brave” when Black people remain trapped in a system that continues to suffocate them, and police departments are made up of armed cowards. Until America and all its people accept the realities they’ve pushed aside for hundreds of years and reckon with history, they will continue to repeat itself.
Casey Grace Lai is a 14-year-old freshman of Chinese, Indonesian, and Vietnamese descent currently based in Singapore. Although she enjoys a bit of everything under the sun, she’s extremely passionate about activism, anything related to Literature and History, and musical theatre. A huge fan of about any music genre out there, music is an integral part of her daily life and she moves through her day as if it were a musical, mostly seen from her ability to play four instruments. She is highly competitive, although her proudest achievement to date is that she can sing the entirety of several Broadway musical soundtracks.