This week #BlackLivesMatter turned 5. Catholics must continue to embrace its mission.
On July 13, 2013, following the acquittal of the neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, a year after he fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin, the Oakland, Calif.-based writer and activist Alicia Garza posted on Facebook: “Black people, I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter.” Patrisse Cullors, another California writer and artist, shared the post and created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
“Many of us were tired and disturbed by the lack of recognition towards the killing of black people by vigilantes and law enforcement.”
At the same time they organized protests against the Zimmerman verdict, the two women, along with the New York-based community organizer Opal Tometi, quickly built up the Black Lives Matter network on social media. “Many of us were tired and disturbed by the lack of recognition towards the killing of black people by vigilantes and law enforcement,” Ms. Cullors said in a 2017 article in Rolling Stone. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, told me via email that the hashtag first appeared in 2013, but “the movement was born in the streets of Ferguson in August of 2014”—referring to the St. Louis suburb in Missouri where, in response to the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer, Black Lives Matter held its first national protest.
The movement has grown to include chapters in Australia, Britain, Canada and Ghana. Its members have met with political leaders like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to discuss issues like police brutality and institutional racism. B.L.M. has also spurred activism on campuses across the United States, including the protests against racism at the University of Missouri in 2015. In that same year, B.L.M. launched Campaign Zero, which provides organizers with a list of proposals aimed at combating police violence, including the curtailment of “broken windows” policing, independent investigations into local police departments and increased racial diversity among U.S. police officers.
The movement also guides its local chapters with goals and principles that emphasize restorative justice, empathy, being queer- and transgender-affirming, and fighting “vigorously for [the] freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people.” By using both social media and direct action, the movement has grown—and is not without critics.
Since the creation of #BlackLivesMatter, Catholic leaders have begun to take the racial justice movement much more seriously.
David Clark Jr., the former sheriff of Milwaukee County and a prominent supporter of President Trump, has referred to the movement as a “hate group” and compared the organization to the Ku Klux Klan. Others have been critical of the movement’s tactics, which include shutting down streets and highways for protests. An online petition sought to have the Defense Department declare Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization, claiming that it “has earned this title due to its violent actions in multiple cities and their influence in the killings of multiple police officers throughout the United States.”
But since the creation of #BlackLivesMatter, Catholic leaders have begun to take the racial justice movement much more seriously. At the National Black Catholic Congress in Orlando last July, U.S. bishops met with young black Catholics to discuss a perceived lack of support for the interests of communities of color. Stacy Allen, one of the attendees, asked the gathering, “How do we respond as people of faith to issues of race that have always been going on in society, but especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement?” In response, Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri III of New Orleans said, “To the black youth, I apologize to you as a leader of the church because I feel we have abandoned you in the Black Lives Matter movement and I apologize.”
The momentum of Black Lives Matter may have also been a factor in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops establishing a new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism last August. The goal of the committee is to address “the sin of racism in our society” and its effects on both the church and civil institutions. The bishops will release a pastoral letter based on the committee’s findings this November—the first formal document from the U.S.C.C.B. to address racism directly since 1979.
These efforts are welcome. But we are also seeing a rise in reported instances of racial bigotry in the United States, from citizens calling the police on African-Americans going about their daily lives to the rise of white supremacist groups to the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants at our borders. Now more than ever, we need the Black Lives Matter movement. We must continue to reaffirm that black and brown lives matter.
The Catholic Church proclaims that “human life is sacred” and that as we live “in a society marred by deepening divisions,” we must put the needs of the marginalized first. If we are to truly embody Jesus Christ and care for all human life, then we must explicitly stand with our brothers and sisters marching and chanting that Black Lives Matter. We must not let the onus lie solely on the backs of women and men of color. We must lift them up and carry them because the principles this movement embodies—to live in solidarity, to effect restorative justice and to bring about loving engagement—are exactly what we are called to do as Christians.