July 13, 2013: A somber, surreal day for black people in the United States.
A Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman after a special prosecutor charged him with the murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin. The same day, three black women — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — created #BlackLivesMatter in protest. They were not alone in their experience of frustration. Since its creation, #BlackLivesMatter has morphed into a powerful social movement with hundreds of members.
I am a black man living in the age of incessant black deaths trending virally on social media. Along with many of my black friends and colleagues, I had faith in the American legal system during the Zimmerman trial.
My friends and I were certain that the gun-toting 29-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer who racially profiled, covertly followed, attacked and fatally shot a black teen would be brought to justice.
But Zimmerman walked free.
In response to the acquittal, protests erupted across the country from Sanford, Florida, where Martin was killed, to Los Angeles, California. I marched through the streets of New York City alongside thousands of livid people who refused to rage quietly in the face of injustice. The collective hurt and disbelief was palpable. We shed tears, raised our fists and screamed.
How could any reasonable jury rule in favor of an adult who killed a black boy armed with nothing more than iced tea and a bag of candy?
It was just after Zimmerman's acquittal, in a moment of black outrage, that Cullors, Garza and Tometti created the #BlackLivesMatter organizing platform on social media. All three women are organizers who hail from different states: Garza has spent a substantial portion of her career organizing domestic workers across the country. Cullors is a prison abolitionist and artist who has been an active voice speaking against over-policing and criminalization, especially in her hometown, LA. Tometi's work has been centered on the needs of undocumented black people.
The platform they collectively built would challenge the public perception of black lives as being worthless. Cullors, Garza and Tometi's message was powerful and unpretentious: #BlackLivesMatter.
The #BlackLivesMatter organizing call began as a whisper, but now it boasts 26 chapters across the U.S. and one each in Toronto, Canada, and Ghana. #BlackLivesMatter protests have been staged internationally, too: Organizers affiliated with the movement led an anti-police abuse rally in London, and #BlackLivesMatter leaders from the U.S. have even traveled to Palestine as part of a delegation of black leaders.
Two years after its creation, #BlackLivesMatter remains an effective movement. In 2015, it's more necessary than ever.
George Zimmerman is still free. Black people continue to die at the hands of police and white supremacists. Black people are just as likely to be economically disenfranchised, incarcerated or discriminated against at the voting booth as they were in 2013. Signs of improvement are evident, like the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the front of the South Carolina capital building, but the stale presence of racial antagonism lingers. On July 18, the Ku Klux Klan will march in Charleston to protest the removal of the Confederate flag.
A movement has been reignited, but it's not enough. The U.S. has yet to change for black Americans. The second anniversary of #BlackLivesMatter is an opportunity for the nation's government and its citizenry to pose and respond to some critical questions:
1. Do black lives matter enough to create policies that keep black people from being overly policed, criminalized and incarcerated?
2. Do black lives matter enough to attack both the symbols and ideological roots of white racial supremacy?
3. Is the United States government really ready to ameliorate the effects of centuries-old political and economic disenfranchisement of black Americans that were a consequence of its insidious anti-black ideas?
#BlackLivesMatter is not self-help pop psychology. It's not an intervention black people in the U.S. can use to reiterate our worthiness. It's not a tool we use to convince non-black people of our value.
It is a critique of a society that deems black lives unworthy through its policies, its practices and its political and economic systems. It's a call for accountability and material justice.
We must remember that a celebratory call to action was birthed out of collective rage, disappointment and lost faith.