#BlackLivesMatter: the new civil rights movement

Feb 18, 2015 at 7:56 pm
Valentine delivered to City Hall on Feb. 14
Valentine delivered to City Hall on Feb. 14 Photo by Edward Neary

Growing up in the Highlands, Nate Jones never thought much about racial segregation in Louisville. He knew that the neighborhoods became poorer and predominantly black once you crossed 9th Street into West Louisville, but he never took the time to think about why that was. At Hampshire College, a private liberal arts school in Amherst, Massachusetts, he got involved with social justice groups working on environmental issues and lobbying for Palestinian rights in Israel. Then one day someone asked him why he wasn’t dealing with the apartheid in his own country, so Jones decided to move back to Louisville to work on local social justice issues. The 26 year old returned to Louisville in time to take part in the Occupy Movement, a 2011 campaign for economic justice that began on Wall Street but soon spread to cities across the country. Jones later joined the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and the local Sierra Club, which was dealing with pollution problems in Southwest Louisville. He is now an organizer with Kentucky Jobs With Justice.

All of this explains why Jones braved the light snow and near single digit temperature on Valentine’s Day to join about 20 other social activists taping colored hearts to Louisville’s City Hall. Each of these Valentines to the local power structure bore the names of police shooting victims, their ages and some detail about the incident that led to their deaths. For example: “‘I don’t have a gun. Stop Shooting.’ Michael Brown, 18. #Last words.’”

An African-American man sitting at a nearby bus shelter wandered over to ask Jones the purpose of the hearts. He answered, “They are to show love and respect for shooting victims. We don’t want people to forget their names.” As if on cue, two local television news cameramen showed up to record the impromptu memorial.

Brown’s Aug. 14 shooting and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, Officer Darren Wilson, set off weeks of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last year. But the impact of the incident is still being felt across the nation. Ferguson helped to politicize a generation that many older activists thought was too entranced by videogames and Facebook to care about the world outside of their phones and laptops. These millennials are using modern technology to stay connected, organize and change the face of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

The young activists at the City Hall event on Valentine’s Day came from different backgrounds. Representing various local social justice organizations, they varied by race and socio-economic class. What they had in common was an urge to change the world and the Internet. Most of them were notified about the event by the Ferguson National Response Network (fergusonresponse.tumblr.com), a Tumbler page that lists opportunities for social activism across the country. It is where one goes to learn about a Ferguson-to-Philly Town Hall in Philadelphia, a Youth Assembly in North Carolina, or a candlelight vigil in Portland, Oregon. Ferguson.liveuamap.com allows viewers to see a live map of active demonstrations around the world. The blog Ferguson2Louisville (ferguson2louisville.wordpress.com) provides a calendar of local social justice events focused just on the River City. Ferguson Action (fergusonaction.com) is another national informational site used by local organizers.

All of this Web surfing often leads to real life action in the streets of Louisville. The Valentine’s Day event was a benign example of what activist Chanelle Helm, a member of the Kentucky Alliance and Women in Transition, calls “direct action.” These are activities designed to interrupt the average citizen’s everyday life and force that person to think about social justice issues. So far, the event that has received the most attention happened in December 2014 when Helm and other social justice activists blocked Shelbyville Road during Light Up Middletown to bring attention to the death of Eric Garner, a man who died after New York police put him in a chokehold. Garner’s death spawned the popular “I Can’t Breathe” campaign.

In November 2014, Helm led a group that interrupted a performance in the Mayor’s Gallery to protest the lack of diversity among the artists invited to perform in the Mayor’s Music Series. It led to promises of more inclusiveness in the future. Helm has also organized what she calls “Black Brunches,” where she leads activists to a local restaurant and forces diners to listen to poems and information about social justice issues. This is supposed to be an assault on white privilege by forcing people outside their comfort zone. “People have to turn their attention to us,” Helm explained. “Of course there is going to be anger. There is going to be confusion. There is the ‘Why are you here?’ Then you are going to get the racist, ‘If only you act right. If only you did this right.’ Confronting these people is an interruption to their lives just like systemic racism is an interruption to our lives.”

These direct action events are the descendants of the flash mobs and the meetups that were first-wave instances of Internet-based organizing. Cate Fosl, Director of the University of Louisville’s Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, said the trend points to the way technology is transforming the social justice movement. “We are in the midst of a real paradigm shift,” Fosl said. “Social media allows activists to share information across state lines and even across international borders. People can play a role by doing something as easy as just sharing a news article on Facebook. It is also an efficient way to organize activities. This has the potential to be a powerful tool.”

An example of the power of social media is the #StopRush campaign. In 2012, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh labelled college student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she testified before Congress in support of birth control. Soon #StopRush started as a campaign to boycott Limbaugh’s advertisers. The campaign was joined by Boycott/Rush, #FlushRush and numerous Facebook pages. “Talk Radio’s Advertising Problem,” a Feb. 3 Wall Street Journal article, said the online campaign was having a negative impact on Limbaugh’s wallet. According to the article, pure talk-station revenue fell from $217 million to $205 million in recent years. The number of talk stations shrank from 546 to 510 over that period. The paper says, “the erosion of ad dollars from talk stations was driven in part by a series of organized social media campaigns by liberal activists in early 2012 that scared away advertisers.”

Local activist Tara Pruitt is not surprised by the success of the #StopRush movement. She said social media is a way for like-minded people to get outside the prism of the mainstream media to voice their true concerns. Pruitt used the phrase “Slackervist” to describe people who only participate in social justice online but don’t actually make it out to the streets. This might seem like a lazy thing, but Pruitt said slackervists actually play an important role in the movement by getting the message to the people who ill actually take action.

“I think with the Internet, it actually tells the truth about the movement,” she said. “A lot of times, the media likes to wrap it up in a bow. They focus on what’s the most salacious or what will get the most hits. Ferguson would never have happened if not for social media. I heard about the shooting of Michael Brown online before I saw a news story. It might not have been picked by the mainstream media if not for the online reaction. That is the biggest difference for me. Social media lets me find out what’s going on on the ground level versus a 10-second blurb on the nightly news.”

Clinical social worker Samika Wheat agrees with Pruitt. Wheat has also taken part in a number of direct action events and she said the Internet allows activists to keep the focus on their issues when opponents try to take the discussion off on tangents. One of her pet peeves is when community leaders dismiss discussions about police misconduct with complaints about “black-on-black crime.” Wheat said black-on-black crime is a meaningless category with no real definition. Is it only violent crimes? Does domestic violence or white-collar crime qualify as black-on-black crime? She said crimes of opportunity, things that happen because people of the same race tend to live in the same neighborhoods, are being passed off as pathology in the black community.

“It’s that same old narrative,” Wheat said. “Everything is so focused on how damaging our culture is now: how we dress, what we like, what we are doing. Black-on-black crime rates are about 93 percent. White-on-white crime is about 89 percent, but you don’t hear people talk about white-on-white crime or Asian-on-Asian crime, for that matter. You only hear that when someone wants to take attention away from another matter. We’re adults. We can focus on more than one thing at a time.”

Helm complained that the public is missing the real story of the social justice community. “For the record, Ferguson has not ended,” she said. “The media left but there are still demonstrations going on in Ferguson, and they have spawned other activity all over the country, over the world even. The media just wants to show violence, but this is about community. What happened in Ferguson is causing some people to take a hard look at what’s going on in their own cities.”

Many of the announcements on the numerous online Ferguson sites end with “#BlackLivesMatter.” This became a popular signature in 2012 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, in Florida. But as the number of shootings of unarmed black men has continued to gain attention, #BlackLivesMatter has grown into a legitimate social justice movement with its own website, blacklivesmatter.com, and advocates all over the world. Local organizers of #BlackLivesMatter have some very concrete goals. They would like a civil review board for the Louisville Metro Police Department, the establishment of a national database of unarmed people killed by police and a reversal of the militarization of the police department.

Helm understands that most people find her direct action events annoying. But she wants them to think about how these minor annoyances compare to the problems poor people and minorities face every day. She pointed to a recent event where the LMPD SWAT team interrupted life at the Beecher Terrace Housing Project by showing up in force in camouflaged paramilitary gear. A witness to the event said that the SWAT team set off a stun grenade that had residents running for cover in fear for their and their families’ safety.

Veteran photographer Bud Dorsey was walking out of the 10th Street Branch Library when he noticed the SWAT team. Dorsey has covered crime and community affairs in West Louisville for 40 years for the Louisville Defender, the city’s only African-American newspaper. He noticed several strange things about this engagement. He said the police did not cordon off the street and that there was no helicopter overhead as he’d seen in past SWAT actions that he had covered.

“When the grenade went off it got really chaotic,” Dorsey remembered. “There was an old woman who was carrying her groceries down the street. She fell when she was trying to run towards Chestnut. I stopped taking pictures and helped her. The guy that was giving orders was in a suit. He was not wearing a bullet-proof vest or a helmet. That’s why I thought it was some kind of training exercise.”

LMPD spokesperson Alicia Smiley said the unit was at the housing project to serve a felony warrant. She didn’t have any other details. Helm said it is show-of-force events like this one that causes West Louisville families to have discussions about police power. She wants to stimulate similar debates in other neighborhoods.

However, the Internet can be a two-sided sword when it comes to organizing social activism. On Valentine’s Day, before the City Hall event, Helm had also organized a direct action to take place at the Bristol Restaurant on Bardstown Road. Participants were supposed to assemble at Mid City Mall and make their way to the restaurant. Since many of the participants found out about it on the Internet they did not actually know any of the organizers. This reporter and his photographer showed up at the mall before Helm and found ourselves in the awkward position of showing people where everyone was supposed to line up. Eventually, the whole thing was called off because some of the participants were running late and they also had to make it downtown for the Valentine’s ceremony.

#BlackLivesMatter is a cause in need of a traditional organizational infrastructure and focus, but it has certainly unleashed a lot of energy into the local social justice community. Helm has founded Stand Up Sundays at the Carl Braden Center in West Louisville, where interested people can learn about local opportunities to join the movement. She is also holding regular direct action training sessions to prepare activists for the situations they will face.

“There were people who were organizing actions and not briefing anyone, letting people know what to expect,” Helm said. “We want to make sure we have a time for people to ask questions and to learn what direct action is about.”

Although the movement is in its infancy, Jones reiterated that there is a great need for a #BlackLivesMatter movement in Louisville. He is especially concerned about revitalization plans that would move working-class people from the Portland and Russell neighborhoods. “Once the poor people and African Africans have been moved out of this area, just like New Orleans after Katrina, it will become ideal development territory,” Jones said. “I don’t think it is wrong to want to see development in business and job opportunities in West Louisville. Obviously that’s a necessary thing. The problem is that the people doing the development have a different plan than the residents. They are not going to develop property that is affordable to the people who have needed development for decades.”

#BlackLivesMatter has organized the Feb. 22 “Sea of Red,” a nationwide vigil to remember victims of police shootings. It marks the three-month anniversary of the death of Tamir Rice, a 12 year old shot by Cleveland Police because he was holding a toy gun. There are three events planned in Louisville that day. There will be candlelight vigils in the Louisville Seminary Chapel, Newburg Park, and at the corner of 32nd and Greenwood in West Louisville. All of the events begin at 6 p.m.

Helm said three vigils are necessary because organizers want to reach every group of people in the city. “#BlackLivesMatter cuts across racial and economic lines,” she said. “Poor whites and Latinos have the same problems as African Americans. Corporations and the government are deciding where and how we live. It’s time to start pushing back.”