BLM responds to a long history of racism

Black Lives Matter, or BLM, is a movement that the entire nation and the world are now familiar with. People see it on a global scale right now because of the death of George Floyd. Many people understand why the spotlight on BLM is so intense right now but some refuse to acknowledge the purpose of this movement. The struggle of people of color in the United States has existed long before BLM rose to prominence.

Community members attend a peaceful protest downtown on the evening of June 6. Photo courtesy of Monica Terrones.

In 2013, Black Lives Matter was started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, three Black organizers responding to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman.

“Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression,” according to the official website.

Black Lives Matter has chapters of organizers all over the U.S. that support communities that are affected by hate and violence. They also have platforms to open conversations on what it means to be Black in America, call for social and government change with campaigns such as Defund the Police and Invest in Communities. Garza explains in an interview what Defund the Police actually means.

“So much policing right now is generated and directed towards quality-of-life issues, homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence,” Garza said. “What we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for quality of life of communities who are over-policed and over-surveilled,” Garza said.

Trayvon Martin was killed on Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. He was a Black 17-year-old junior in high school visiting his father and stepmom. He had just come from a convenience store to buy Skittles when a neighborhood watch leader, George Zimmerman, who is white and Latino, spotted him and labeled him as a “suspicious guy in a dark hoodie, a gray hoodie,” according to the police call recording of him. Zimmerman called the police in Sanford and was instructed to leave the teenager alone. Zimmerman followed the unarmed teen in his SUV, who was on his way to his father’s house.

When police arrived at the scene, Martin was hit with a fatal shot to the chest and Zimmerman claimed he shot the teenager in self-defense, even though Martin had no weapon on him. There was no one to witness what had happened and police took Zimmerman into custody, but did not arrest him.

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The death of Martin also brings into light Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to defend themselves in dangerous situations outside of their homes. Zimmerman chose to follow the unarmed teenager even when instructed not to by the police.

Zimmerman was later charged with second-degree murder on April 11, 2012 and acquitted of all charges on July 13, 2013. The national response to Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal helped spur the creation of BLM. People acknowledged the continued injustices of Black people in America. Then-President Barack Obama spoke of Martin’s death.

“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” Obama said in a White House press release on July 19, 2013.

Supportive gatherings for the Black community and Martin’s family took place after Martin’s death such as the Million Hoodie March in New York City on March 22, 2012. The event attracted thousands of people who wore dark hoodies in solidarity for the racial profiling and death of Trayvon Martin. Protests all around the country also took place. Foundations like The Trayvon Martin Foundation, Circle of Mothers and The Youth Empowerment Summit were created in response to Martin’s death.

Violence against Black people in America has been prevalent since colonial times. The history of slavery in America has stained the foundation of this country in blood and oppression, it’s roots so deep and clenched in American soil that it planted seeds that would grow new struggles for black people in modern history, such as systematic racism. Slavery was abolished in 1862 under the Emancipation Proclamation but did not fully end until 1865 under the 13th Amendment.

Racism was pervasive in early America, especially in the south where Black people were lynched, burned, raped, mutilated and murdered. Four thousand seven hundred forty three lynchings occurred in the United States from 1882 to1968. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam in 1955 for allegedly aggressively flirting with Bryant’s wife, Carolyn. The two men abducted Till from his uncle’s house where he was visiting and took him to another location. There, they tortured Till and mutilated him until he died.

Till’s corpse was unrecognizable to his mother when he was found. Bryant and Milam were never charged with any crime and Carolyn Bryant, who made the allegations of flirtation, later said that Till had never “touched, threatened or harassed her,” as quoted in an interview with historian Tim Tyson, for his book “The Blood of Emmett Till.” Till’s mother insisted that her son have an open casket funeral to show the world what was done to her son.

This horrific incident echoes wrongful perceptions of Black Americans made by white Americans that happen today. A 2017 study by The University of California shows that Black Americans are over 50% more likely to be convicted of crimes such as murder and sexual assault than white Americans.

According to the study, “Black Americans constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016), and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals later cleared in “group exonerations.”

Echoes of injustice ceaselessly reverberate throughout history to modern times. Breonna Taylor, who was a 26-year-old emergency technician, was shot and killed in her own home by police on March 13, 2020. Taylor is one of many lives lost because of police misconduct and brutality. The officers who killed Taylor entered her home with a no-knock warrant because her home was under suspicion of having ties to two drug dealers. No drugs were found in her home. The police officers who killed Breonna Taylor have not yet been held legally accountable for her death.

Another incident is the confrontation between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper (no relation) that went viral on Twitter. Christian Cooper is an avid bird watcher and was on an outing in Central Park in New York City when he asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog, in compliance with New York City law. Amy Cooper exploded and called police on him, falsely saying that a Black man was threatening her. The incident was recorded on video. Amy Cooper apologized publicly for her behavior and has been subsequently fired from her job.

Cheryl Williams is a U.S. Army veteran and the former president of The UAA Black Student Union, or BSU. During her time at BSU, she focused on building more understanding of all Alaskans towards all people. She speaks of how BLM is not a new trend but presents a new way to communicate with the world about the struggles that Black Americans face.

“Imagine a musician that just released a hit song and became famous. You never heard of them until now when they exploded in popularity. What you do not know is that the musician has been working and struggling for years and has just been unknown. That is what Black Lives Matter is. It is simply drawing your attention to something important that has always been there,” Williams said.

The death of George Floyd in May spurred a global reaction, with people of all backgrounds supporting BLM. Floyd struggled to breathe for 8 minutes and 15 seconds on May 25, 2020 as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, pinned him down by the neck while Floyd, cuffed with his hands behind his back, pleaded for his life, repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.”

On May 29, 2020, Chavin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three former officers, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, who were present during Floyd’s death, were also charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Celeste Hodge Growden is the President and CEO of the Alaska Black Caucus. She discusses racism in Alaska and what can be done.

“We must have advocates fighting to eliminate disparities in healthcare, economics, justice and education. Community conversations about race need to take place on social media or via face-to-face with the community, family members, employees, students and kids. The fact it is an option for many to have conversations about racism is in itself a privilege,” Growden said in an email.

For more information about Black Lives Matter, visit the official website, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. To join the Alaska Black Caucus or find more information, visit their website or Facebook. An interactive memorial for Black people killed by police in America called “Know Their Names,” is available on Aljazeera.com. To learn more about systematic racism in the U.S., visit Time, The National Center for Biotechnology, Vox, or watch this Ted Talk.

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