A New Lady Liberty?
Last summer an image of a woman facing off with the police had popped up on my Facebook feed. I shortly admired the picture and clicked it away.
Later that night the image kept creeping back to me. Who is she?
The woman reminded me of a black Statue of Liberty, as if she was exclaiming to all African-Americans: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
I did not know her name, so I just called her Black Liberty.
The woman, Ieshia Evans, was taking part in a Black Lives Matter protest on July 9th, 2016 when police arrested her for obstructing a highway. When asked about the altercation she said: “When the armored officers rushed at me, I had no fear. I wasn’t afraid. I was just wondering: “How do these people sleep at night?”
Iesha and the protesters were angry, tired, and have had enough with the systematic, institutional, and fatal racism that has plagued their lives since the day they were born black in America.
Coming together to fight the injustice they face every day, the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLMM) is the result of years of African-American’s frustration. Mainly focusing on the most fatal part of racism towards blacks in the United States, police brutality, the BLMM describes themselves as a group calling for an end to “extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes” and a group that stands up for the rights of black people all over America, regardless of their gender, or sexual orientation. While the BLMM aims to fight racism without violence, but they do not explicitly discourage violence. Finally, and most importantly, the BLMM has an ultimate political goal “to (re)build the Black Liberation Movement.”
The Black Panther Party (BPP) was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California. Like today’s movement, the members of the BPP were also tired of the still-present racism in the everyday lives of the average African-American, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The BPP saw action as the only way to achieve true social freedom. As Assata Shakur, a prominent member of the BPP stated in her speech To My People, which lists the grievances she and many BPP members had against American society in 1973: “Every revolution in history has been accomplished by actions […] We must create shields that protect us and spears that penetrate our enemies.”
Today, the BLMM echoes the same call for action against injustice stating “#BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” Here the parallels between both movements can clearly be seen.
As mentioned above, the BLMM focuses on police brutality and police killings. The sentiment that the police systematically murder African-Americans is not new however. In her speech, Shakur speaks directly to this point. She first lists the names of victims of police violence (Rita Lloyd, Emmet Till, etc.), and goes on to provide a statistic that even though Black people account for less than a quarter of the American population, almost three quarters of murder victims are African American. She also states that “for every pig that is killed in the so-called line of duty, there are at least fifty Black people murdered by the police.” The BLMM describes themselves in the same fashion, highlighting the injustice of the Trayvon Martin case, in which his killer George Zimmerman was acquitted.
During the case, the tendency of the media to stereotypically villainize and criminalize Trayvon and the BLMM emerged. Rumors that the 17-year-old Trayvon was a drug dealer, circled around the (mostly conservative) media. Out of this, and many of the other cases involving the death of a male African-American, the conservative world settled on a new villainizing word to describe black murder victims: thug.
Demonization of the BPP and BLMM
During her performance at the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, Beyoncé and her dancers adorned costumes that were reminiscent of the Black Panther Party. While many admired Beyoncé’s bravery to so publicly show support for the BLMM, many conservatives in the United States quickly labeled Beyoncé as a “race-baiter” and the BLMM as a terrorist group. One of these conservatives, Tomi Lahren, the popular host of the show The Blaze, targeted Beyoncé on multiple occasions for showing solidarity with the BLMM. Lahren even went as far as to say the group was “the new KKK.” The sentiment that the BLMM was a terrorist group was then reinforced by the mainstream conservative media after the Dallas shootings in 2016. This naturally made the BLMM look less credible and awoke a fear for the group among white conservatives.
The BPP was also systematically villainized by the U.S. media. Through negative newspaper and TV ads which depicted the party as violent and always armed. The negative attention badly hurt the credibility of the BPP, which was strongly feared by the white public who had a negative connotation to powerful blacks in the first place. The many successful social programs that the BPP created to battle poverty in black neighborhoods, however, were mainly left out of the media. The constant negative discourse that the FBI and the media portrayed of the group, eventually caused the BPP’s downfall.
The Long, and Ongoing, Civil Rights Movement
In The Long Civil Rights Movement, author Jacquelyn Dowd Hall argues that while the Civil Rights Movement did help to bring some equality to African-Americans, today many of the problems that had plagued blacks then, are compounded now. This would explain the BLMM movement as a natural reaction to the injustices faced by the African-American community. With almost no African-Americans in a seat of power in government or in the judiciary, in comparison to whites, the real power of blacks to change their fates lies in the hands of white males who feel threated by the minority group. Perhaps the ultimate goal of the BLMM, to rebuild an effective Black Liberation Movement, is the only way African-Americans may be able to truly bring about racial equality.
“About the Black Lives Matter Network,” http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
Alexander Tepperman, “Marijuana’s “Dark Side”:Drugs, Race, and the Criminalization of Trayvon Martin” (University of Florida) (http://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi? article=1005&context=csrrr_events)
Assata Shakur, “To My People,” in Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan, ed. William L. Van Deburg (New York: New York University Press), 169.
“Beyonce and the Black Panthers | Final Thoughts with Tomi Lahren,” The Blaze, hosted by Tomi Lahren <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2O5MGpfKTc>
Brame, Wendy, and Thomas E. Shriver. “Surveillance and Social Control: The FBI’s Handling of the Black Panther Party in North Carolina.” Crime Law Soc. Change 59 (2013): 501-516.
“Conservative host Tomi Lahren under fire for calling Black Lives Matter ‘the new KKK’ as critics say her comments are ‘reckless’.”
Houston A. Baker Jr, “The Black Bottom Line: Reflections on Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and White Male Violence in America,” 652.
Ieshia Evans, “I wasn’t afraid. I took a stand in Baton Rouge because enough is enough,” The Guardian, July 22nd 2016.
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Lonb Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Mar., 2005), pp. 1233-12631
Joseph Rose, “Breakfast, Clinic Programs Belie Militant Panther Image,” The Origonian, Friday, November 12th 1971.
Kirkby, Ryan J. “This Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Community Activism and the Black Panther Party, 1966-1971.” Canadian Review of American Studies 41 (2001): 25-62.
“The Black Panther Party,” https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/black-power/black-panthers