From Selma to Black Lives Matter

After the first instance of racially motivated violence during Selma, I wanted to start shouting “Black Lives Matter.” I held my tongue, so as not to disturb others in the theater. But I wondered if others in the audience saw the obvious connections between the racial violence of 50 years ago and the violence we’ve witness in the last year. As the credits rolled, I got my answer. Some folks in the back began chanting “Black Lives Matter.” I felt satisfied. And then something fascinating happened. I noticed a man in the row ahead of me with a distinct sneer on his face as he looked back towards the chanters. It wasn’t just that he looked bothered. His face curled into an almost identical expression of hatred displayed by the white racist characters in the movie. Why did he cop such a look? The chanting could not have disturbed his movie viewing. The film was over.

I didn’t talk to the man, so I have no idea what was going through his head, but a thought went through mine. Maybe he didn’t get the connection between the events in the film and the Black Lives Matter protests happening today. The incongruity made him angry.

How so? Let’s try to connect the dots. The Selma March belongs to history. It was a seminal part of the Civil Rights Movement. A national hero, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led it. The film depicted peaceful black folks from all walks of life, from the elderly to the young, marching for the right to vote, and being brutalized as a result. Moviegoers reacted with revulsion to a reenactment of these events, just as TV viewers did 50 years ago watching the real thing. The racism depicted was obvious, crude.

Today, for some, things are more complicated. When we hear about an unarmed black man or woman being killed by a police officer, shades of doubt enter many people’s heads. Today, society has deified the police to the point where their motives are rarely questioned, examined, or properly investigated. Similarly, the killed unarmed black person automatically falls under suspicion. This inevitably leads to the kneejerk conclusion that s/he must have deserved it either because they were guilty of something or because they escalated the situation by not obeying the police properly. Furthermore, the person killed wasn’t serving a higher purpose, like marching for civil rights. Thus, they do not possess the unimpeachable aura of innocence attached to demonstrators from the Civil Rights era. To someone with this mindset, it’s not only ludicrous to compare the two events – Selma and Black Lives Matter protests – it’s actually blasphemous.

Maybe this explains why the man sneered so harshly. Blasphemy usually provokes severe reactions. Nonetheless, this way of thinking contains a whole lot of wrong.

One should not need an unimpeachable aura of innocence to warrant humane treatment or due process. This goes for Eric Garner, who sold cigarette illegally as well as for Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who failed to drop his toy gun fast enough – within two seconds – before police shot him to death. Police killed both of them by escalating their encounters with these individuals and by forgetting that they were human beings, contrary to everything preached, marched, fought, and died for 50-plus years ago. The Civil Rights Movement had but one message at its core: Black folks are people, too. In other words, Black Lives Matter.

Black Live Matter if you’re going out to get Skittles. Black Lives Matter if you’re riding BART on New Year’s Eve. Black Lives Matter even if you had just robbed a liquor store. The sad fact remains that if any of these instances had involved white men instead of black men, the men would likely have survived their encounters with the police. Racial bias exists today as it did 50 years ago.

The movie showed a dramatization of the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. In the film, Jimmie Lee is with his family at a night march, when the lights suddenly go out and police charge after the protesters. Jimmie Lee and his family escape and hide in a diner. The police find and beat them. Jimmie Lee tries to protect his elderly father when one officer takes out his gun and shoots him dead. The dramatization stays largely true to the facts of the killing, with one exception. Jimmie Lee did not die instantly, but two days later in hospital. He was 26 years old.

The policeman who shot him, James Bonard Fowler, claimed self-defense, saying that Mr. Jackson was trying to get to his gun. Sounds familiar? Fowler did not get indicted for the murder until 2007, 42 years later. He still claimed self-defense all those years later, but pled guilty in a plea bargain deal to involuntary manslaughter and spent six months in jail. Sounds quite familiar. In 2009, the FBI began investigating Fowler’s possible involvement in the killing of another unarmed black man, Nathan Johnson. In 1966, Mr. Johnson was stopped on suspicion of drunk driving and shot dead during the encounter.

The real blasphemy, as I wrote a while back, is that we still have to say “Black Lives Matter,” 50 years after Selma. The real blasphemy is that the police use the same excuses (“he was reaching for my gun”) to justify the killing of unarmed black folks. The real blasphemy is that people ennoble the Civil Rights Movement, deify it, so that its messages, reasons, and goals can vanish in that never-never land known as the past. It becomes an abstraction, and thus unconnected to similar events occurring today.

Some may sneer at Black Lives Matter chants and protests, but do so at their own peril. For they are sneering at the very people and events they hold so dear from 50 years ago.

© 2015, gar. All rights reserved.

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