You Can't Deny the Success of #BlackLivesMatter

April 9th 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

Last December, in Chicago, I took the elevator down from teaching a class to find the lobby full of students anxiously staring out the window. I walked forward to leave, and the security guard grabbed me by the arm. She was an elderly black woman, and it was the first time I'd seen her working security in that building. But she still looked at me with a kind of intimacy as she begged me, "Please don't go out there, they're protesting out there." I apologized to her - I felt like I was betraying her as I stepped outside. She kept all the black students safely inside. I didn't stop to ask her whom she she feared more -- the protestors or the police -- because her answer seemed obvious.

The protest was marching right past our door, so I started walking with them. Within less than a block, I walked up to a line of cops blocking traffic to allow the protest to continue. Most of the cops were just standing around watching, but a few looked angry (however, none of them behaved in any way other than professional). The angry pedestrians were appealing to the police, assuming that members of law enforcement would agree that the protest was a nuisance. I stopped walking with the protestors for a little while to listen to the complainers. They were all white, mostly male, and incredibly angry that their commute home (or to the football game nearby) was interrupted. The angry officers commiserated with them about how stupid the protest was, how it was wasting everyone's time, and how "they shouldn't expect us to take any pity on them when they slow down traffic like this." Yes, I actually heard a white man yell loudly enough for me and several other other black people to hear that slowing down his progress to a football game made him not care if we were murdered or not. One man yelled directly at me, "What is the point of all this? Am I supposed to care about this when you're ruining my night?" That's a real thing that one human being said to another. (One cop did tell the complainers to shut up and leave if they were bothered by the protest).

But, even more shocking was the many, many people (mostly women) who asked, "what's going on?" and "what are they protesting" and "who's Mike Brown?" I was shocked to see so many professional people who, despite not looking like they had been living under rocks, had no idea that there were protests going on around the country or that police shootings of black men was an important issue. One woman said she was a teacher nearby (in a predominately black neighborhood) and had heard no news about any of the officer-involved shootings and the resulting protests. As I continued walking, all along the protest route, I heard people (mostly women) asking and answering questions. Black women explained to white women what had been going on in Ferguson and in New York, why they were protesting, and why the march was important.

This week, in downtown Los Angeles, I came upon another protest. The participants were mainly black and Hispanic. Most carried a cardboard sign in the shape of a coffin with the name of someone who had been killed in officer-involved violence. Most heart-breaking were two, very young girls carrying signs that said "Justice for my Daddy." The police calmly cleared the way for the protesters to continue down the street, some nodding along to the drum beat, passersby watched, some joined in the chanting...and not a single person asked why they were protesting.

I've been thinking back to that December night in Chicago, when I was too shocked to answer the guy who asked, "What's the point of this?" But I have an answer now: The protest I saw five months later in Los Angeles. That was the point. That everyday commuters are now aware of the different experience of living as a person of color in this country, that they no longer have to ask us why we are protesting. And hopefully no longer feel that their comfort and quick commute are more important than our lives.

The #BlackLivesMatter protests are meeting their goals.

Inasmuch as a leader-less movement can be said to have goals, this one seems to be meeting them. There are now far fewer people unaware of the disparity between black and white experiences with the justice system. Conversations in real life, on the internet, and even at Starbucks have opened many Americans' eyes to contemporary racial inequality. A presidential task force has been formed to make recommendations on best practices to make law enforcement more equitable. The Justice Department issued a report on racial discrimination in Ferguson that will have effects in cities across the country.

One of the major findings in that Justice Department report was that Ferguson's municipal operations were being funded on the backs of its poor, mostly black residents. Distrust and discord between the community and its police officers had been fueled by city policies that required residents to be overpoliced, fined, arrested, and jailed for minor offenses so that the city could use those fines to meet budgetary needs. It is no surprise that poor residents who are constantly fined for minor infractions -- that are often the result of poverty themselves -- will feel resentment, hopelessness, and distrust in the system.

Historically, black voter turnout has been low in Ferguson, but in the first election there after months of protests, 30 percent of Ferguson residents voted, more than double the regular turn-out. The result? Three black city council members were voted in, making the city council 50 percent black for the first time in the city's history (Ferguson's population is 67 percent black). Perhaps having their voices heard through protest renewed a sense of hope that their voices (and votes) can make a difference. It will be interesting to see if this trend goes beyond Ferguson in the coming election year, particularly in light of the voter suppression laws being passed around the country that disproportionately impact poor and minority voters.

But there is still further to go.

This week, an unarmed black man named Walter Scott was shot and killed while fleeing a police officer in North Charleston, S.C. It should be considered a positive result of the protests that the officer was fired and charged with murder. Of course, when these killings don't happen at all, the protests will have truly achieved their goals. Still, officers are seldom charged in shootings of civilians, so this is a big deal. Initially, the officer's version of the story -- that he feared for his life and the victim took his taser -- was believed. One local newspaper -- Charleston's Post and Courier -- wrote up the officer's version of events in a manner that has become sadly typical:

A North Charleston police officer felt threatened last weekend when the driver he had stopped for a broken brake light tried to overpower him and take his taser. That’s why Patrolman 1st Class Michael Thomas Slager, a former Coast Guardsman, fatally shot the man, the officer’s attorney said Monday. Slager thinks he properly followed all procedures and policies before resorting to deadly force, lawyer David Aylor said in a statement... Walter Lamer Scott, 50, of Meadowlawn Drive in West Ashley died soon after the encounter near Craig Street and Remount Road. He has been arrested about 10 times in his lifetime, mostly for failure to appear for court hearings and to pay child support. The only indicator of violence in his past came with his first arrest in 1987 on an assault and battery charge. Slager, 33, served honorably in the military before joining the North Charleston Police Department more than five years ago, Aylor said. He has never been disciplined during his time on the force, the attorney added. - The Post and Courier

The Post and Courier has not issued an update or retraction to this article.

Like much of the media coverage of shootings of black men, the article assumes that the officer's version of events is true without corroboration and goes out of the way to paint the victim as somehow deserving of his death, despite the fact that he was stopped for a broken tail light and not under suspicion of having committed a crime at the time of the shooting.

Video evidence was released that showed that the officer's version of events was untrue. The video shows Slager shooting Scott as he is running away and appears to show Slager dropping his own taser near the victim. Without this video, Slager certainly would not have been charged or fired. Increased awareness of police shootings of black men may have led the witness to record the interaction in the first place. It also could be why, with the exception of the article quoted above, the media has engaged in far less victim-blaming when discussing this killing.

In order to address racial bias in policing, we have to admit that it exists. And that is what the protests have begun to help us to do. They've forced us to acknowledge that bias is at the root of the different manner law enforcement interacts with black and white people, even during routine traffic stops. The acknowledgement of bias is an important part of the equation because police officers are only allowed to use force on a fleeing suspect when they fear for their safety, and racial bias -- among police officers as well as the general public -- makes it more likely black men will be killed based on that standard as police are more likely to fear black men and the public is more likely to validate that fear.

The protests have forced even those Americans that didn't want to pay attention to acknowledge the problem... sometimes by standing in front of their cars and blocking traffic. And it seems like it might be working.