Black Lives Matter Five Years Later — Sustaining a Social Justice Movement During an Adversarial Administration — Implications for Social Workers
A vital social justice movement survives and thrives despite overt opposition from the highest levels of government. The executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission explains why the current administration has failed the movement and how social workers can help create change.
Five years have come and gone since Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi sparked the launch of what would become the #BlackLivesMatter social justice movement. Initially in response to the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has grown as black lives continue to be disproportionately and unjustly lost to deadly force by law enforcement.
Today, BLM is defined as "an ideological and political intervention in a world where black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise," according to blacklivesmatter.com. More than 40 BLM chapters exist globally as a growing group of activists continue the nonviolent and peaceful demand for the cessation of this violence. Howard Steven Brown, a student at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, says that five years later, issues brought to the forefront of the organization and the movement itself have become staples in the black community.
Much has transpired since the 2013 launch of BLM. Over the past five years, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Tony Robinson, Stephon Clark, and, most recently, Antwon Rose, have been among the black lives lost to police violence. It is important that we know and say their names.
Last year brought new developments. We saw how violence against black lives manifests itself in other ways. Our nation witnessed what structural violence looks like with the National Football League (NFL) stonewalling of Colin Kaepernick due to his peaceful protest of police brutality during the playing of the national anthem. We also saw the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, openly galvanize white supremacists and result in the murder of Heather Heyer, a white ally who, among others, was run down by a white supremacist plowing his car through a crowd of counterprotesters.
In addition to these events, 2017 ushered in a critical shift that must be explored and considered by social workers when it comes to today's climate surrounding BLM. When BLM was first launched in 2013 and throughout the movement's early years, an ally resided in the White House: former President Barack Obama. On January 20, 2017, however, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States—and the tone coming from President Trump and the current administration couldn't be more different than that of President Obama.
Two Presidents, Two Stances
As for voicing support for the BLM movement itself, former President Obama was direct in clarifying the validity of the movement. In the former President's own words:
"I know that there's some who have criticized even the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' as if the notion is as if other lives don't matter. We get 'All Lives Matter' or 'Blue Lives Matter.' I understand the point they're trying to make. I think it's also important for us to understand that the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' simply refers to the notion that there's a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed. It's not meant to suggest that other lives don't matter. It's to suggest that other folks aren't experiencing this particular vulnerability and so we shouldn't get too caught up somehow in this notion that people who are asking for fair treatment are somehow automatically antipolice or trying to only look out for black lives as opposed to others. I think we have to be careful about playing that game because, obviously, that's not what is intended" (McDonald, 2016).
In addition to voicing support for BLM, former President Obama concretely demonstrated that support by inviting BLM activists to the White House for a meeting in 2016 (Rhodan, 2016). With the history book closed on President Obama's presidency, a look back makes it clear that there was most certainly acknowledgment, support, and validation of and engagement with BLM.
The contrast between former President Obama's approach to BLM and current President Trump's stance is stark. One of President Trump's first acts as president was to publish a page on the White House website (www.whitehouse.gov/issues/law-justice) titled "Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community." Included on this webpage was a message seemingly targeted at BLM.
As initially reported in a Slate article, the website—which has since been changed—stated: "The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration. President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public. The dangerous antipolice atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it" (Neyfakh, 2017).
While former President Obama tried to explain to the American public that to say "black lives matter" does not mean to say one is antipolice but instead acknowledges the racial disparities in policing and seeks justice for black lives, President Trump immediately moved into conflating BLM with antipolice sentiment. The message that would be coming out of this new White House was instantly made clear: You will find no friends of BLM here.
While the tone set by President Trump on day one of his presidency was a bold move away from that of former President Obama, it was not much of a surprise to anyone who was paying attention prior to his presidency. For a GQ interview in 2015, Trump was clear about his thoughts and feelings regarding BLM (Heath, 2015). When asked about the size and strength of the growing BLM movement, Trump minimized the movement by saying, "I don't think it's a big movement." In the same interview, Trump uttered the BLM-demeaning phrase "all lives matter" and stated his belief that the term "black lives matter" is "hurting [black people], not helping them."
President Trump's stance on BLM was also reflected in his administration's response to the continued police violence against black lives, Kaepernick's peaceful protest, and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
In the face of continued police killings of black people, the Trump administration has been largely silent. After being pressed recently for a response to the killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and
Stephon Clark in California, President Trump's Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not offer much as she redirected the issue to "local authorities." Sanders was also clear about whom this administration stands with when she said, "Certainly, we want to make sure that all law enforcement is carrying out the letter of the law. The President is very supportive of law enforcement, but at the same time in these specific cases and these specific instances, those will be left up to the local authorities" (Diamond, 2018).
With largely radio silence regarding the continued killing of black people, there has been anything but silence regarding Kaepernick's peaceful protest of them. Often taking to Twitter to voice his thoughts, President Trump has seemingly continued to miss the entire point of Kaepernick's kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. While Kaepernick has been clear that his peaceful protest is about there being black "bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder," President Trump has repeatedly inserted himself into this situation to spin the protest as well as to condemn Kaepernick and the NFL's response (Wyche, 2016).
For instance, President Trump has tweeted, "The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our country, flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!" Also, during a speech in Alabama, President Trump asked the crowd, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired. He's fired!'" (Graham, 2017).
While Kaepernick has exercised his constitutional right to peaceful protest in alignment with the BLM movement, the President of the United States has condemned it and called for the firing of Kaepernick. To this day, Kaepernick remains unsigned in the NFL. In a nation where free speech and freedom to protest are constitutional rights, Kaepernick's punishment has been spearheaded by the President of the United States. Kaepernick has been signed by Nike for the 30th anniversary of its "Just Do It"campaign quietly referencing his stand on police brutality. Trump's response was, "I think it's a terrible message."
The response to the situation at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year was consistent with what has been said by the Trump administration regarding the BLM movement. After the white supremacists who cascaded upon Charlottesville chanting slogans such as "white lives matter" and "go the f**k back to Africa" were met with counterprotestors, a state of emergency had to be declared as unrest and violence erupted (Fernández Campbell, 2017).
In the wake of this horrific event, President Trump's initial remarks failed to condemn the white supremacist instigators and instead offered the now infamous line of there being "very fine people on both sides" (Gray, 2017). At a time when the nation saw the reality of white supremacy alive and well in America, only limited and seemingly forced remarks condemning this racist hatred were issued by President Trump.
Many observers, such as Crystal M. Edwards, founder of Empowering Single Moms, Inc., were left understanding the President's response to be that of condoning white supremacy and ethic cleansing (Bradley, 2017). "America remains poised in her compliance, partly due to the fact that she has been the beneficiary of minority children being ripped from their parents' arms, since the very day the Native Americans allowed the 'settlers' to have dinner. The stench of hatred and privilege continue to reaffirm, 'black lives don't matter,'" she says.
On the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville rally, Trump issued a statement condemning "all types of racism" but still failed to specifically denounce white supremacy.
Jamie J. Brunson, executive director of First Person Arts, a storytelling organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of artists and everyday people, says that it has been clear from the stories shared with her organization that Americans of color and white Americans alike are appalled, and many traumatized, by the violence that prompted the founding of the BLM movement. This ongoing violence has been particularly damaging to the will of the entire community, especially the black community, which is hit hardest. Brunson believes that for African Americans, "the Black Lives Matter movement will always be less of a movement and more of a continued advocacy for a way of life."
What Does This Mean for Social Workers?
Considering the guiding values and principles of the social work profession, it is to be expected that social workers from all over the color line are now finding themselves in a state of unrest at best, outrage at worst. The NASW Code of Ethics charges social workers with "challenging social injustice" and addressing "social problems." During a time when the killing of black people continues and the BLM movement is being oppressed and marginalized from one of the most powerful institutions in the nation led by one of the most powerful leaders in the world, what are social workers to do?
While it can feel like a perilous time to be a social worker, the good news is that our profession is uniquely equipped to be part of the solution.
Engaging in Political Social Work
What follows are just three of them:
Voter Engagement and Mobilization
If every social worker were to reach out and ignite just 10 people in their sphere of influence to vote in alignment with the NASW core values and principles, the voter base would expand to more than 6.5 million people. If there is to be the significant political shift needed to support the BLM movement, social workers must focus efforts on expanding the constituency of consequence for elected officials.
The act of social workers passing on the knowledge they have acquired to those most affected is invaluable, as is educating those unaware or unable to see the gross injustices serving as the impetus of the BLM movement. Social workers have much to contribute through providing education when it comes to both empowering those most impacted and waking up the masses to the reality of the injustice.
Social Workers Running for Office
While social workers can most certainly support elected officials with crafting and enacting legislation and policies to end the violence targeting black lives, the greatest power can be found in more social workers holding elected office. For some social workers, it is time to heed the inner call to serve in an elected official capacity. For others, it is time to support the candidacy of social workers in local and national political campaigns by providing time and resources.
At the end of the day and in light of the current political climate surrounding BLM, one of the most effective mechanisms for ensuring elected officials are in alignment with NASW values and principles is to get social workers into elected office. While this current administration demonstrates a lack of support and total ignorance for all BLM stands for, the future administration could look much different if social workers were to rise to the political social work call.
Greg Seaton, PhD, founder of the Isaiah Blue Center for Positive Youth Development, says direct service is great and much needed but that social workers must continue to create space for themselves and other social workers to make policy that not only captures the ethos of BLM but also truly understands the simplicity and magnitude of the statement "black lives matter." It is time our profession rises to that call.
— Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW, is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and president of Black Men at Penn at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice.
Diamond, J. (2018, March 30). White House calls police shootings of black men 'a local matter.' CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/28/politics/alton-sterling-white-house-reaction/index.html.
Fernández Campbell, A. (2017, August 15). Some racist, homophobic chants in Charlottesville may not be protected under 1st Amendment. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/15/16144058/charlottesville-free-speech.
Fuentes Morgan, D. (2017, January 27). Obama and Black Lives Matter: An epilogue. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/01/obama-black-lives-matter-epilogue-170126073428660.html.
Graham, B. A. (2017, September 23). Donald Trump blasts NFL anthem protesters: 'Get that son of a bitch off the field'. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/sep/22/donald-trump-nfl-national-anthem-protests.
Gray, R. (2017, August 15). Trump defends white-nationalist protesters: 'Some very fine people on both sides.' The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/trump-defends-white-nationalist-protesters-some-very-fine-people-on-both-sides/537012/.
Heath, C. (2015, November 23). This Donald Trump interview is the best. You're gonna love it. GQ. Retrieved from https://www.gq.com/story/best-donald-trump-interview-gq-men-of-the-year.
McDonald, S. N. (2016, July 14). President Obama clarifies his definition of 'Black Lives Matter.' The Undefeated. Retrieved from https://theundefeated.com/features/president-obamas-clarifies-his-definition-of-black-lives-matter/.
Neyfakh, L. (2017, January 20). In one of his first acts as president, Donald Trump put Black Lives Matter on notice. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/
Rhodan, M. (2016, February 18). Black Lives Matter activist says Obama meeting was positive. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4229987/obama-black-lives-matter-meeting/.
Simmons, A. M. (2017, August 16). President Obama often spoke about race relations in the U.S. Here are some of his words. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-obama-race-reax-20170816-story.html.
Wyche, S. (2016, August 27). Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem. Retrieved from http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-why-he-sat-during-national-anthem.