What most of us know about Black Lives Matter: it’s a hashtag and the signifier of a movement. But there are two “Black Lives Matter,” really. And it’s becoming increasingly important that Americans learn the difference.
In a post for The Kernel this weekend, Alicia Garza, one of the three founders of the #BlackLivesMatter Network, discerns between the two without devaluing one or the other.
“The #BlackLivesMatter Network was started [in 2013] by three Black women: me, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi,” Garza wrote. It’s an organization with at least 26 chapters, with a registration process and common guiding principles, according to Garza. Its website, blacklivesmatter.com, carries the tagline “not a moment but a movement.”
“We began with a belief that technology can help amplify good work happening in communities,” wrote Garza. “However, we also knew that technology cannot replace a base of people committed with a common vision, working together toward it.”
The #BlackLivesMatter Network has been responsible for a number of high-profile actions, as well as lesser-known ones. The group interrupted a Bernie Sanders event at Netroots in July and then again a month later in Seattle, Washington. Members from the #BlackLivesMatter Boston chapter planned to interrupt a Hillary Clinton campaign event in New Hampshire but were barred from entering; Clinton briefly met with the protesters after the event. Garza credits the groundswell of #BlackLivesMatter Network to the Freedom Ride taken by over 500 people in the wake of Michael Brown.
Black Lives Matter is the broader, amorphous tent under which all conversation about the value of black life occurs. It’s the signs, and the acknowledgement by Democrats that yes, black lives do matter. It’s the tee shirts professional athletes wear.
The formlessness of the larger Black Lives Matter movement makes it an easy punching bag for conservative media. As Garza noted, after the murder of a white police officer in Texas, Fox News host Elisabeth Hasselbeck responded by implicating the Black Lives Matter movement, asking why it hadn’t been classified as a hate group yet. In another instance, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly insisted there was a double standard between the Tea Party and the Black Lives Matter movement. “Suddenly the actions of a few do not apply to the many,” Kelly said.
Garza argues that when critics conflate her #BlackLivesMatter Network with the actions of unaffiliated protesters—like the ones who chanted slurs to police officers at the Minnesota State Fair recently—they are intentionally trying to discredit the movement. In her words:
[T]he #BlackLivesMatter Network is a part of, but is not, in and of itself, the movement. The emerging movement for human rights and Black equality is much larger than us.
And to describe it as a hate group or a terrorist organization is mere political hyperbole. But I would argue it’s hyperbole with a purpose. In response to a wave of protests that have galvanized hundreds of thousands of people around the world, many have responded with rhetoric designed to confuse and defuse. Besides questioning why Black Lives Matter isn’t labeled a hate group, or accusing it of being a terrorist organization, conservatives have challenged “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.” These counter-messages attempt to erase the specificity of Black experience and portray a world in which nothing is ever about race, privilege, and power.
When people in power try to dismiss a movement as a mere slogan—as Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush did—that means something. It means the movement cannot be ignored, and must be undermined as simply nothing more than a brand, a hashtag, a slogan. It reduces “Black Lives Matter” to a commodity, for a society in which everything is commodity. But this apparent dismissal shows us that we’re pointed in the right direction, because the forces that be have been rattled to the point of needing to distort, discredit, and redirect the movement. That means they fear for their own power, and are coming to recognize ours.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.