Politics 101: Why “Black Lives Matter” matters — Racial tension and the 2016 election

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On Aug. 8, two members of the Black Lives Matter movement forced Bernie Sanders off the podium at one of his own campaign events. They commandeered the microphone, demanded that the crowd hold Sanders accountable for not doing enough for the black community, and attempted to direct the crowd in a moment of silence for Michael Brown, one of the many black citizens killed controversially in the past few years.

This was not in St. Louis. This was not on a street in Baltimore.

This was on stage with Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist senator running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. This is Sanders, the guy who attended the March on Washington during the original black civil rights movement in 1963 and recently got the thumbs-up from civil rights activist Cornell West, who’s too left-wing to even support Obama these days. Sanders, the most progressively liberal candidate the Democrats have seen in years.

So why is a Democrat getting derailed at his own rally by black activists? What does the Black Lives Matter movement want, and is this the kind of activity that’s going to advance racial issues in the 2016 election? To understand these questions, we have to go to the movement’s origin.

What started the Black Lives Matter movement?
Way back in 2012 — you’ll remember the name Trayvon Martin — a black teenager was fatally shot in an altercation after being followed by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. After Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in 2013 based on self-defense claims, three black women founded Black Lives Matter to protest police brutality against blacks in America.

Since then, the movement has ballooned into 21 chapters across the U.S. — plus one each in Canada and Ghana — as of this January, and has spurred approximately 1,000 demonstrations in the last 13 months alone, according to elephrame.com. The police-related deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and several other African-Americans have been the subject of constant demonstrations by the movement since its creation. The officers involved in Brown’s and Garner’s deaths were not indicted or charged.

How has America responded?
America, perhaps for the first time, has seen a near-constant stream of coverage of police brutality against African-Americans in the past three years. But as experts well-versed in these events note, it isn’t that America has suddenly seen a huge increase in police-related black deaths; rather, the media, and to a large extent, social media, are simply forcing people to see what’s been going on for years. #StayWoke, the influential hashtag and spirit that was born out of the Black Lives Matter sentiment, is a call to stay aware of the issue and not let it fizzle out — and fizzle it hasn’t.

It’s polarizing — in exactly the right way.
It was almost inevitable that such a hugely visible social movement would collide with the 2016 campaign, and it has — aside from the recent overtaking of Sanders’ stage, the movement became a topic in the recent Republican presidential debate on Fox.

Candidate Scott Walker was asked directly about the movement and its concerns, meeting the question with a comment on how better police training will solve the problem — slyly ducking, for the most part, the issue of racial profiling in general. Candidate Ben Carson addressed race relations by implying that those who talk about racial issues are actually the problem, and that we should act like race isn’t an issue instead of focusing on it. Donald Trump, in his usual classy fashion, dismissed the movement as something he “hasn’t read about,” while criticizing Democratic Candidate Martin O’Malley for apologizing to the movement.

And that’s the beauty of the movement.
At some point, leaders are going to have to take sides. O’Malley, who was interrupted at a campaign event by Black Lives Matter and another pro-black movement, responded to the crowd by saying, “black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter,” and was met with boos. Hillary Clinton made the same mistake while in Ferguson this June.

What’s the problem with “all lives matter”?
As writers at the conservative RedState.com arrogantly pointed out last week, a majority of likely voters support the phrase “all lives matter,” while only 11 percent support “black lives matter,” according to a poll by, of course, conservative-leaning company Rassmussen Reports. If we take them at their word, this means that, even today, Americans still don’t understand the race problem we’re dealing with — and have dealt with — since long before civil rights movements even existed.

Let’s break it down. If you disagree with the phrase “black lives matter,” it can only be for one of two reasons. Perhaps 1) you misunderstand the idea. Stating that black lives matter means what it sounds like: we should care about black lives. It does not, as the Miami Herald noted last week, imply that only black lives matter, nor that they matter more. Because American society has denigrated black citizens politically, socially, economically and personally for centuries, it should be a given by now that black society has been valued less (much, much, indefensibly less) than white society. It is not to shout, “White lives don’t matter.” It is to shout, “we matter too.”

If you understand that, and still disagree with the phrase, then it can only be for reason 2) black lives actually don’t matter to you. This is the line that conservative candidates must walk in 2016 — either get behind the movement, or fall off the tightrope trying to elegantly disagree with it.

As the election nears, the movement becomes even more important.
Black Lives Matter has confronted Hillary Clinton as well, not just Sanders and O’Malley. And although it may seem contradictory, they know what they’re doing: taking the candidates most likely to support black causes and putting more pressure on them to deliver. Sanders, after the incident at his event, came out with a surprisingly all-encompassing racial justice platform — to the support of voices in the movement.

And that’s to say that the endgame here is, as it always is, to vote the right candidate into office. It’s common for us to think that politics can’t fix racist systems in America, but we know that slavery was written into the constitution. We know that southern governors stood by segregation. We know that elected judges and police chiefs (who are usually appointed by mayors) effectively shape how the law works at the ground level, outside the public eye.

It’s time to exercise the right that the first civil rights movement fought for — vote, and vote right. When Obama made the unprecedented move to send an attorney general into Ferguson to make sure civil rights are upheld, that’s how we know that who we elect matters. If you think a Mitt Romney or a Scott Walker would have made that move, sure, the choice won’t seem so dire. But something tells me Donald Trump won’t be “reading about” quite a few important, and life-changing, issues. It’s time — it’s past time — to affirm that black lives matter, and it’s time to put the vote where your mouth is.

Contact Copy Editor Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu, and follow him on Twitter at @ArnoldEllis_.

Ellis Arnold

Ellis Arnold is the CUI's editor-in-chief and a journalism and political science student. He writes about diversity issues, politics, student government, music and (sometimes) life advice. Is he qualified to do that? You'll never know. He's a senior from Aurora, Colorado, who's been with the CUI for eight semesters.

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