#BlackLivesMatter. Much has been made recently of this simple, yet necessary affirmation of the humanity of Black people in America. The hashtag was created by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza in 2012 after the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, and the failure of the justice system to hold Zimmerman accountable for Martin’s death. “It was a response to the anti- Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements” said Garza, in a piece she penned explaining the history of the phrase and organization. “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”
My Black Life Matters Too: Black Women and Girls, Violence and Erasure
While the three Black women who created BLM stated the need to center the value of all Black lives and how they are impacted by state-sanctioned police and structural violence, a clear trend has emerged where the stories of cisgendered, heterosexual Black men who have been murdered by police dominate and thus frame the mainstream narrative of the BLM movement. This trend has ignored the stories of other Black victims of deadly police violence who are not cisgendered, heterosexual men. The depth of this trend became alarmingly clear on April 23rd when activists at the #BlackLivesMatterNYC chapter made a call to the public to demand justice for Rekia Boyd, a 22 year-old Black woman who was murdered by off- duty Chicago Police Detective Dante Servin in 2012. In April of this year, Servin was acquitted of the involuntary manslaughter charges brought against him for Boyd’s death, leading the #BlackLivesMatterNYC chapter to organize a rally for Boyd and all the other Black women and girls who have been killed by police. In a city like New York, where thousands would take to the streets just a week later to demand justice for Freddy Gray, Forharriet.com reported that only about 100 people showed up for Black women and girls, leading them to write, “The narrative on deadly police violence continues to exclude women, and precious few are willing to fight for justice both within the community and outside of it. A judge, this week, acquitted Rekia’s killer, Dante Servin, of all charges. But Rekia’s name will not spark a mass movement.”
Beyond the focus of deadly police violence on Black men, an erasure of the non-lethal acts of state-sanctioned police and structural violence in the Black community have also escaped mainstream calls for accountability. Take for instance the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, a 27 year-old Oklahoma police lieutenant who reportedly sexually assaulted 13 Black women and girls (that we know of ) ranging in age from 17 to 58 by threatening them with arrest or physical violence. It’s been theorized on more than one occasion that Holtzclaw profiled and targeted Black women specifically because of their particular vulnerability and stigmatization in relationship to the state. In fact, while sexual assault is an underreported crime in general, TheGuardian.com’s Hannah Giorgis writes that Black women are less likely to report their assaults to the police because “often [the police] target Black women in particular, knowing our existence at the intersection of racism and misogyny make crimes against us far less likely to be investigated.” Despite the multiple accounts against him, Holtzclaw was still able to muster support and a fundraising page, while the Black women who accused him of assault have been subjected to a victim- blaming smear campaign.
Though these stories are representative of the extreme level of erasure that Black women currently face in the mainstream narrative of state- sanctioned violence, organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement across the country have refused this erasure.
In Chicago, organizers on the ground lead by members of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), We Charge Genocide, and Black Lives Matter catalyzed a day of action to disrupt the male-dominated narrative of state- sanctioned violence. They organized locally and soon, the BYP100, in conjunction with the Ferguson Action Network and Black Lives Matter, spearheaded the call for a National Day of Action on May 21st to end violence against Black women and girls and demand accountability for the individuals and systems that harm and too often, kill them.
In New Orleans, the local chapter of BYP100 led a coalition of a dozen local organizations to put on an action to honor the lives of Black women and girls we have lost to state-sanctioned police and structural violence. The result was a rally, march, education initiative, and vigil that was slated to begin at the Treme Center. At the Center, speakers from organizations doing social justice and anti-violence work with Black women in the city were scheduled to speak about their work and localize the narrative of violence against Black women. Following the rally, attendees were to march through Armstrong Park and meet with the Jazz in the Park crowd to let folks know about the day of action and to hand out information about the particular ways Black women are impacted by state- sanctioned violence. The march was to continue in the local neighborhoods handing out information, until we reached the corner of Claiborne and Esplanade, the site of Penny Proud’s murder. Proud was a 21 year-old Black transwoman who was murdered in New Orleans on February 10th of this year. At the time, she was the 5th transwoman of color to be murdered in just 5 weeks. Despite the consistent rain throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, over a hundred people came out to the rally, which was moved to the end location at Claiborne and Esplanade due to the weather, and the march was cancelled in favor of an extended speak out from the local victims of state-sanctioned police and structural violence. We closed the event with a reading of names, where we paid respect to the lives of Black women and girls who became our ancestors too soon, poured out libations in their honor, and closed with freedom songs by longtime community activist Wendi O’Neal.
As one of the co-chairs of the New Orleans chapter of the BYP100, as well as an employee of Women With A Vision (an organization that has worked to reduce harm and advocate for Black women in New Orleans for the past 25 years), I see tangibly how state and structural violence (and its erasure) impacts Black women. And while the gathering in the rain was a beautiful response to a call to recognize the importance of Black women’s lives, I also know that recognition of harm and death is a hollow victory when Black bodies (male, female and those who do not subscribe to the gender binary) are still being harmed and/or killed on a daily basis.
If we are to truly dismantle the systems that racially oppress and commit acts of violence against the Black community, we cannot do it by only focusing on how Black cisgendered heterosexual men are impacted. The National Day of Action that took place across the country steadfastly declared “the Revolution will be intersectional, or it won’t be my revolution.”
Reframing the Narrative on State Sanctioned Violence, White Supremacy, and Psychological Violence
The world typically remembers British imperialist Cecil Rhodes as a great man. Rhodes’ “greatness” was so recognized by the colonial powers in southern Africa that they erected statues in his likeness, named universities after him, and at one time even named an entire territory after him (Rhodesia, now the Republic of Zimbabwe). Though such distinctions lead some to believe that Rhodes was indeed “great,” there are many in South Africa and across the world who remember the Black Africans and the communities that Rhodes devastated or destroyed in the creation of his legacy. These people remember him far less for his “greatness” and more for the brutality, exploitation, displacement, and murder of Black Africans with which he and other colonial “heroes” attained their power. On April 9th of this year, South Africa’s University of Cape Town (UCT) removed a statue of Rhodes to cheers, after students formed a “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign to push for its removal. According to the BBC, the campaign began after activist Chumani Maxwele “smeared excrement on the statue as a protest against Rhodes’ racism and its legacy at UCT.” The campaign noted the statue had “great symbolic power” and invisibilized Rhodes’ true legacy in which he “exploited Black labor and stole land from indigenous people.” The removal of the statue, they argued, would be a symbolic victory over Rhodes’ legacy of white supremacy. To continue to honor Rhodes’ legacy with the statue, they said, would be to continue to uplift a racist colonial legacy and mentality that had no place in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Here in the United States (where every year, 32 young Americans are selected as Rhodes scholars) we too often honor “great” men who achieved their notoriety through the violent exploitation, subjugation, and genocide of Black (and indigenous) people without any thought to the implications of uplifting their legacies. In the South, many of these men are tied to the Confederacy, which unapologetically upheld white supremacy and fought bitterly to maintain slavery and the continued dehumanization of Black people. Monuments to these men, as well as the prominent presence of the Confederate flag across the U.S. South (which was used by the Klan in the 20s, and in anti-Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1950s and 60s) remain despite America having allegedly overcome its racist history by ending slavery. However, as historian and long time organizer (and guide for Hidden History Tours New Orleans) Leon Waters tells us, “When George Washington and company got rid of English domination in 1783, they rightly made a clean sweep of all symbols of British oppression. They knew that if such symbols remained, the hand of reaction would be strengthened and oppression would not be eliminated. They tore down all statues of King George. They renamed many cities, roads and public buildings (especially schools) after those who fought to crush the British enslavers. History was rewritten to tell the truth about British exploitation of the North American colonies. The same thing should have been done (and still must be done) in relation to the slavocracy of the South as a result of their military defeat in the Civil War.”
Indeed, not only did the North not destroy the Confederacy’s white supremacist legacy by removing Confederate symbolism from the South, it went on to later erect statues of Confederate “heroes” in addition to naming highways, streets, and other national monuments after them. The presence and maintenance of these symbols serve to continuously perpetuate the existence of white supremacy, as well as contribute to ongoing psychological trauma in Black communities across the South (and the whole country) who literally live in the shadows of their oppressors. The continued glorification and romanticization of these American “heroes” and the Confederacy erases the real ways their anti-Black legacies still permeate American society today.
The fact that the current movement for racial justice has taken on the banner “Black Lives Matter” tells us that we still live in a country where Black life is not inherently valued. Beyond physical and structural state-sanctioned violence, the romanticization of a racist legacy and the maintenance of symbols of white supremacy serve as a daily reminder of how little the state has always valued Black lives. It should not be surprising that Black bodies are being killed with impunity by the state, when the same state spends money maintaining symbols of white supremacy and honors men who killed Black (and indigenous) people with impunity. As BYP100 New Orleans member A Scribe Called Quess? puts it, “[there are] links between America’s sordid socio-historical legacy of violence towards Black people, how that history is preserved and maintained through the symbolism that represents it, and how the preservation of such vitriolic racial consciousness helps sustain the conditions of white supremacist psychology that directly and/or indirectly sanction the devaluation of Black life.
For artist John C. Sims, these symbols of white supremacy and their relationship to the ongoing mistreatment of Black Americans today were too blatant to ignore. In 2004, Sims, who calls the Confederate flag “almost too toxic to handle” started a campaign against it by repainting it red, black, and green like the Black European Dissent said at the town hall, “White people’s nostalgia should not trump Black people’s trauma.” Historian Richard McFarlane once described Cecil Rhodes as “integral a participant in southern African and British imperial history as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are in their respective eras in United States history.” It is no coincidence or hyperbole that he puts these “great” American men in the same breath as this “great” British colonist. If South Africa has the courage to start symbolically dismantling the legacy of oppression apartheid left behind just two decades after the end of the era, then it is high time the United States confronted and began to dismantle its own racist legacy and bring an end to the psychological violence it inflicts upon Black communities across the country. The burning and burial of the Confederate flag in the 13 states on Memorial Day was a start, but as a nation we must find it within ourselves to first be honest about the violent, genocidal and anti-Black history we stand on in order to understand why symbols like the Confederate flag and monuments to slave owners, racists, and Confederate generals cannot remain. As Leon Waters described in the closing of his speech, “instead of racist monuments to American terrorists and murderers, we must demand monuments to the victims and those who fought the oppressors. We must demand a statue that commemorates the victory over slavery. Instead of accolades to the Confederate slave masters, we should demand statues of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Charles Deslondes.”
There is local precedent for such a thing. In the late 1990s, local activist and Civil Rights veteran Carl Golman led a campaign that eventually saw the renaming of 26 New Orleans public schools which were named after slave owners. “It made no sense to have Black students wearing the names of slave owners like a brand” said Golman in a phone conversation. “We lost six million Jews in the Holocaust. If six million Jews represents the Holocaust, what does the loss of 35 million Africans in the African passage represent?” We would never ask Jewish people to live on streets or attend schools named after their Nazi oppressors, because we recognize the trauma they were put through, yet we expect Black people across the country to subject themselves to psychological trauma by honoring our oppressors with buildings, highways, monuments, and the preservation of a racist flag and other symbols of the Confederacy. We must remove these symbols of white supremacy because as long as they remain, we cannot truly achieve a just society or an America where Black Lives Matter.