What ‘Black Lives Matter’ Actually Means

I’m going to go down a road I typically don’t go down. I’m going to talk about something that has divided our society today. It something that is not exactly understood, but it is something that most have strong opinions about. But, there are some of us who don’t have an opinion about it and who watch both sides fighting unsure of what exactly is going on. My hope is that this article sheds light on what this movement is really about. Today, I tackle the black lives matter movement.

For those unaware of this movement, it began with the series of highly publicized deaths of unarmed black men by the hands of the police. I will not go into the merits of what happened in each case, or what my personal opinion of what happened.

The cases, regardless of anyone’s beliefs, highlighted the relationship between minority men and the police department. They sparked a movement known as black lives matter. It is largely associated with hash tags precluded with the limited characters allowed by twitter. That’s exactly the problem. Something as complex as black lives matter deserves more than 120 characters on twitter, more than a two minute discussion on your local television station, and more than an awkward black lives matter joke that comes up occasionally. The first thing you must reconcile as a reader is that this movement deserves your attention. If you don’t agree, stop reading at this point because anything I say will not be important enough to make a difference.

Before I continue, knowing the background of the author helps the reader to understand where the author comes from especially with a highly politicalized topic as this one. I’m a 25-year-old black male. I’ve just completed law school in May. I grew up in what I would call a mixed bag of ideologies that makes me ideally suited to take up this topic.

My parents are naturalized Democrats originally from Zimbabwe, but raised me to have opinions and ideas of my own. I spent K-post grad at Christian private schools, and thus, educated largely by conservatives, who for the most part like my parents also encouraged critical thinking. Undeniably, I was indoctrinated in American culture on both sides of the political spectrum because I was surrounded with politically diverse people. In case anyone doubts at this point, I absolutely loved my upbringing because of the diversity it fostered in my life. It is this upbringing that gives me a unique perspective and voice in what I believe black lives matter actually means, or what it should mean.

Black Lives Matter is not…

I’m starting the critique with what isn’t black lives matter because they are a lot of misconceptions about it that need to be addressed.

This movement does not mean that black lives are more important than other lives. I’ve heard this argument passively expressed to diminish the moral soundness of the movement. It is what I call the high horse argument. You may have heard this expressed when people say, “ I thought all lives mattered.” The truth is that all lives absolutely matter, and the black lives movement wholeheartedly supports that statement. To say that black lives matter is not say that all lives do not matter.

The problem with that reasoning is illustrated by the following example. Let’s say we were discussing the way homeless people were being treated in the community at large. During the course of our discussion, if you would say, “we as a community need to be sensitive to the needs of the homeless community as it pertains to our daily interactions with them.” Then I responded with, “ shouldn’t we be sensitive to everyone’s needs.” You’d be rightfully frustrated because the context of our conversation had to do with an issue uniquely associated with the homeless in our society. By addressing the issue, you were not taking away the need to be sensitive to the needs of everyone else in society nor were you supporting neglecting the needs of others in our community.

At the end of the day, the high horse argument is a distraction to what the movement actually means. Those who hold to the high horse argument have either never really thought about what black lives matter actual means or see no issue to address. It is a lazy argument that really has no relevance to black lives matter.

Second, black lives matter is not about hatred for the police or at least it should not be. There are those among us who have used this movement to express their own preconceived hatred for the police. Some aspects of the movement have been used to attack the good that police officer play in our society. It is my personal belief that most police officers are good at their jobs and hold no ill will toward the black community. For the most part, these individuals are just simply doing their jobs.

Just like in every profession, there are the few who ruin it for everyone. Black lives matter should not be an indictment on all police personnel. We all know they sacrifice a lot to do what they do. Black lives matter is an indictment on keeping police officers accountable when they do screw up, and yes they do because they are in fact human. It is an indictment on granting police officers a hundred percent impunity. No profession should be granted such a high threshold: no doctor, no lawyer, nor no President of the United States. Ultimately, black lives matter is an indictment on the system that keeps police officers accountable (I’ll return to this on my in depth look what black lives matter actually means).

Support for black lives matter should not be equated with lack of support for law enforcement. Black lives matter seeks/wants a better law enforcement at the end of the day. Just because you want to see a change in something doesn’t mean you do not support it. Everyday, parents raise concerns the way their children are behaving in the hopes that at the end of the day they are becoming better human beings. We do not accuse these parents of not supporting their children. In contrast, silence or not disciplining children is seen as neglect. In the same way, black lives matter should not be seen as anti-police. It is a movement that has raised a concern and should be treated as such.

Black Live Matter is…

The moment is here. It is time for my opinion on what black lives matter ought to represent. Sometimes it is hard to grapple around complex ideas and movements because of all the extrinsic factors that often cloud what is usually a simple principle. For black lives matter, it has been distracted and overshadowed by politics, media coverage of and rioting/ looting, and our own personal bias about the movement. I’ll be the first to admit when I saw the images of people looting and destroying their communities my faith in the benevolence of this movement steeply declined.

For example, my own personal bias stems from my belief that we as individuals can overcome any life circumstances to achieve greatness. I like the idea that I’m in control of my own destiny, and that although racial prejudice exists I can overcome it. For people like me, when we see people riot in the streets it seems like an excuse. We say to ourselves, “follow the laws, be cordial to police officers, and stay out of trouble.” If you follow these rules, regardless of whether there is racial prejudice, you won’t end up dead. The problem with this thinking is it asks us as citizens to settle for what is, and not to strive for better. I’m not saying the rules I set out are wrong, but they are a distraction from making a better criminal justice system, which I believe is the sole cry of black lives matter.

A better criminal justice system is what the whole movement is about. If you look at it through those lens, the marching, the outcry, and the media coverage starts to make sense. Those who are scratching their heads in bewilderment probably are unaware with glaring issues in the criminal justice system. They lack either the personal experience of an imperfect justice system, or they have not been informed. I’m not casting blame here because if you don’t know or lack personal experience, it’s hard to empathize with a movement.

Black lives matter has shed light on the glaring issues in the criminal justice system. It is best at this point to discuss some of those issues.

One predominating issue with the American criminal justice system is the incentive to imprison our own citizens. The U.S has the largest prison population in the world. “Even though the U.S represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it has around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.” These numbers do not coincide with U.S being any safer to live than any other country. On the contrary, we are among the top nations in violent crimes. Instead, another number paints a picture to what I believe is really going on. In the U.S, the annual revenue from incarcerations is in the billions. Private prisons alone make billions of dollars every year from the large incarceration numbers. These private prisons make money from the masses being incarcerated. To ensure that more people are being incarcerated, they send political lobbyist to Capitol Hill to advocate for stricter laws, longer sentences, and a larger police force…under the guise of a safer community. I’m not one prone to conspiracy theories, but there is a glaring monetary incentive for some in this country to have more people incarcerated.

Another predominating issue, which I believe is even more associated with the black lives movement, is the relationship police officers have with the community they are protecting. The relationship with the black community and the police has a long and sorted history. For those unaware, this seems to have come out of nowhere, but students of history and frankly African Americans are fully aware of the tensions. The world and the rest of America became aware of this tension during the Rodney King Riots, where there was footage of police officers assaulting an already detained black man. I say this to make the point that these are not new issues. These hidden issues have finally boiled over, and have found a voice in the “unarmed deaths” of black men around the country.

Let me say this, I believe police corruption and those incidents are largely in the minority. But, there exists a small faction of police officers who take advantage of the trust and lack of transparency in their daily policing. This small faction is being rightfully ousted by new technology and highlighting a narrative that has in large part been a secret of the black community. The narrative is that bad cops skirt the law to the detriment of minorities. Like in another profession, our goal is to remove the bad ones. Our criminal justice system should no longer operate under the assumption the police officers are saints. My favorite quote that highlights the fallibility of all people comes from one of the greatest documents on democracy, the Federalist Papers. It says, “ If men where angels, no government would be necessary.” We can still respect and honor the sacrifice of the badge and also hold the badge accountable. These actions are not mutually exclusive, and it is time for American society to realize that.

Thus, with all that being said, black lives matter is magnification of the issues in the criminal justice system that have been ignored for far too long. There are those who cannot support the movement because they do not believe any issues exist. I challenge those people to research before claiming no issues exists. If you are truly interested, I recommend the Department of Justice Report on the Ferguson police department. It outlines some of the issues that were particularly apart of the Ferguson police department. You don’t have to take the report at its word, and I encourage seeking out other sources. But, please do the research before coming to generic conclusions like that all police officers are bad or minorities are not treated differently in the criminal justice system.

With all that being said, I’ve talked about what black lives matter movement is. One thing I can say is that the movement has done a poor job articulating exactly what it is about, which is why numerous op. ed. pieces like this one exist. This is the problem with a movement being largely based on a twitter hash tag. It spreads like wild fire, but the message becomes unclear and distorted along the way. I want to end with what I hope the black lives movement is able to accomplish in our society. These are practical suggestions that I can only be done through legislation and not on the heals of our twitter handles, which is something my generation has failed to understand. At the end of the day, movements are good for igniting passion, but to see actual change one must go to the ballot box. Just ask Martin Luther King Jr.

Hope For the Future

As discussed above, this is a highly volatile and polarizing issue with heated opinions on both sides. Regardless, it is my belief that this movement should be geared towards practical changes in our society that should benefit all people.

First recommendation: institute body cameras for all police officers. This would require each state to adopt body cameras for their individual police force. The camera is essential to understanding what exactly occurred in the field. Technology has progressed to the point where not knowing or being unsure should not be what’s stopping the truth from getting out. I am well aware there are some legal loop wholes that need to be addressed (privacy implications…etc.). This doesn’t mean there isn’t an immense benefit in recording volatile situations that occur during a police officer’s shift. Chances are these cameras will clear more police officers than incriminate. The point is that the camera is a third party non-biased observer.

Second recommendation: require extra training for police officers in community development/ sensitivity training. If you look at the average state requirement for police officers, the average training last 6 months most of which is basic training and a field component. There is not a strong enough emphasis on community engagement. One new component could require a police officer to serve in some community service aspect in the community he/she will be assigned to for a period of 3 months or so. This would mean obviously extending the length of the training. Those in opposition to this extension should recognize that we as a society require doctors, lawyers, and engineers to have years of education, practical training and licensing requirements before we allow them to work. We do this in order to protect our society. As important as the police functioning is to our country, requiring a measly 6 months to a year is a bit perplexing.

Third and final recommendation: empathy. This is more of a plea to both sides of the political spectrum. Understand what it’s like to experience racial prejudice by the very people who have sworn an oath to protect and serve you. In contrast, understand what it’s like to experience the hatred of the masses you seek to protect and serve even though most police officers have done nothing wrong. The point is that there is truth on both sides of the aisle. The point of black lives matter movement is to finally highlight the issue that has been long ignored.

The reasonable minds of the black lives matter movements only want more transparency in law enforcement. It is a simple request that should be at least mulled over by our society. Reasonable discourse usually yields reasonable results. To protect and serve is a police officer’s oath. I damn sure respect them for the sacrifice they make putting themselves in the line of danger everyday, but wanting more transparency isn’t the same thing as disrespecting or dishonoring their badge. Thought Catalog Logo Mark


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