Why ‘All Lives Matter’ Matters Now
When Black Lives Matter focused attention on the value of human life, people all over the world internalized it. Is race just the tip of the iceberg? The real problem may be much deeper.
In 2019, the town of Frankton Indiana added the phrase “All Lives Matter” to their police cars. The Town Marshal, Dave Huffman, wanted to “illustrate the seriousness with which Frankton police officers take their duty to protect all of the town’s citizens regardless of income, economic status, race, nationality, age, or any other factor.” By “all of the town’s citizens”, he meant all 1,862 of them, of which 0.4% were Black. These were unarguably good intentions. In the tech world, early adopters are called “lighthouse customers”. In Frankton, they were called racists.
As early as September 2016, Black Lives Matter had already spawned protests over the police killings of Trayvon Martin, Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Antonio Martin, Jerame Reid, Renisha McBride, Charley Lendeu Keunang, Tony Robinson, Anthony Hill, Meagan Hockaday, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, William Chapman, Jonathan Sanders, Sandraw Bland, Samuel DuBose, Jeremy McDole, Corey Jones, Jamar Clark, Mario Woods, Abdullahi Omar Mohamed, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines, Bruce Kelley Jr., Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott. Alfred Olango, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
You might think reading this many names interrupts the story, but it doesn’t. It interrupts their lives. It is the story.
One of the least recognized but most innovative activities Black Lives Matter gets right is the long list of names. They accumulate. They bear weight. That weight creates the pressure for change.
But those names also had a lot in common. They were Black names, and no one else.
In retaliation for the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, five police officers were killed including Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patricio Zamarripa. Their murderer was also killed, by a robot, with a bomb.
Responding to Black Lives Matter, white supremacists countered with the term ‘All Lives Matter’. Seemingly innocuous but filled with innuendo, All Lives Matter quickly became taboo, as hot as a racial slur, and public figures who originally liked the sound of it backed off. The term ‘All Lives Matter’ became so caustic that savvy politicos apologized for their using it before Black Lives Matter even emerged.
In Frankton, the police were requested to remove the offensive phrase, and they complied.
On the surface, “All Lives Matter” was racist. But the slogan resonated far beyond the debate. Well-meaning people stood by the phrase, out of innocence or ignorance or both. Why did this phrase, one that appeared so easy to agree with, meet with so much resistance? Why did so many people from all walks of life seem to want to embrace it, warts and all?
Without realizing it, the Black Lives Matter movement tapped into America’s arterial vein. They thought it was the vein of racism, but racism is a capillary compared to this. Their message was simple. Black people are dying. Help us. But people latched onto more. They internalized it. They thought, if Black Lives Matter, so does mine. If black Americans felt targeted, they weren’t alone.
Latinos were the second largest ethnic group dying at the hands of police. They had their own names — Pedro Villanueva, Melissa Ventura, Raul Saavedra-Vargas, Vinson Lee Ramos, Jessica Hernandez. For complicated reasons, there didn’t seem to be enough support for Latino Lives Matter, so they marched with BLM.
LGBT people wanted in, too. They had fewer killings by police, but no shortage of names from hate crimes and prejudice. The New Orleans UpStairs Lounge massacre of 1973 in which 32 gay people burned to death was the largest mass killing in the US… until 2016. That year, the Orlando Pulse nightclub mass shooting outnumbered the entire Black Lives Matter collection with 49 dead.
Feminists, with a century of protest experience, wanted to help. No stranger to killings, the names they added were not killed by the police but by men they loved. Domestic violence based on gender found a place in the movement.
Immigrants were a target, literally, hunted by vigilantes like the Minutemen, the Neo-Nazi led U.S. Border Guard and the Texas Border Volunteers who perform armed ‘manhunts’ described as ‘fun’. They add more names to the list every year, names like Eusabio de Haro, Lisa Mederos, Raul Flores Jr., and six year old Brisenia Ylianna Flores. In 2010, Anastasio Hernández-Rojas pleaded for help as twelve Customs and Border Protection officers beat him to death. Undocumented immigrants weren’t even safe in courtrooms or hospitals where plainclothed ICE officers found and detained victims of crime during testimony and medical procedures, as in the case of Sara Beltran-Hernandez, pulled out of brain surgery to be tied up and placed in detention. So when Black Lives Matter wanted to reign in police brutality, immigrant groups wanted in.
Black Lives Matter faced a quandary. To include other groups would detract from their core message. Black people are dying. Help black people. But there were so many voices. While still a Black identity, the group functioned like the center of a vast Venn Diagram of the American oppressed.
Then white faces started to salt the marches. That perplexed everyone. White people? For Black Lives Matter? White people are the Oppressors. The Killers. Wasn’t that what this was all about? Black Lives Matter made it clear that white privilege precluded membership in their movement. White people had their place — in the audience.
To many that seemed, well, racist.
What was going on?
A remarkable thing happened in November of 2016. Coal towns, the Rust Belt, unemployed steel workers, fading rural townships all voted for an extremist President. Why? Because he told them their lives matter. Where the rest of the country took it for granted that white lives mattered, rural regions suffered thousands of losses from suicide, opiate overdoses, and obesity related diseases. These were the red flags of people who think their lives don’t matter.
The media circus pulled up tents to cover Tweets, Black Lives Matter faded from the headlines, and All Lives Matter remained a dirty word. The murders continued. Families grieved without a nation behind them.
But the dark American heart beat on.
The COVID Wake-Up Call
On March 26, 2020, Frederick D. Partlow, a resident of Frankton, Indiana, became the first person to die of COVID-19 in Madison County. Frederick D. Partlow. Just another name, not a name you’ve heard before, and not a name you will remember. His death did not make national news. His death did not inspire people. No police car slogan could save him.
Or could it?
COVID-19 lit 2020 on fire. Everything stopped. You know. You were there. As the pandemic engulfed the world, humans were given a non-human adversary. This novel coronavirus did not care about your nation. It did not care about the color of your skin or your religion or your political beliefs. People fell ill, rich and poor, black and white, men and women, red and blue, zoomers and boomers. Some in proportions larger than others but enough in each camp to democratize the process. All our divisions fell against an organism we couldn’t see. It gave us the society we always wanted. We were all equal.
We were human, and that’s all.
Covid could have brought us together. We could have been the next Great Generation, the way our grandparents apocryphally worked together in the World Wars. We could have done right by each other. Many countries did.
We knew, defeating COVID early meant keeping people alive. The Global Peace Index reported that “countries with higher levels of Positive Peace have been quicker to adapt and respond to the pandemic.” Top countries like Iceland and New Zealand leveled the curve with very few deaths. Their citizens trusted each other enough to make the sacrifices necessary to keep each other safe.
The Unites States ranks 121, just edging out Burkina Faso.
If Americans believed that All Lives Matter, they would have done everything in their power to stave off the virus. The US did the opposite. Although fully 60% of Americans stayed home during COVID, even without strict lockdowns in place, the solidarity was not there. To wear a mask or not? To close tattoo parlours or not? Political parties seemed more intent on blaming others than taking leadership roles. Many openly carried their guns to the supermarket, without wearing masks, firm in their belief that humans posed a far more salient threat than the virus itself. That was telling.
When faced with a threat to their lives, Americans responded with a shrug. Some believed it only killed the weak or the old, or those who made poor life choices. Fighting COVID became a moral issue, a choice, an issue of personal freedoms.
Our response to COVID laid bare our worst intentions. We wished COVID on our enemies. We politicized it. We heard Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick say it was worth dying to protect the economy, the same economy that doesn’t provide free health care for COVID patients. This was a wake up call.
America didn’t wake up.
The economy matters. The news cycle matters. Freedom matters. The Second Amendment matters. Politics matters. But us? We’re living our lives on credit, extended only as long as we can pay the minimum monthly fee. After that…
More names. More names than will fit here. Enough names to fill a phone book. 531,000 names and counting.
Why? No lives mattered. Not even our own.
It wasn’t just that Americans didn’t trust each other. It was much, much worse.
A Vision of the Future
“You’re going to kill me.” Five of the the last words George Floyd spoke on May 25, 2020, as Minneapollis police officer Derek Shauvin kneeled on his neck and responded, “It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk.”
George Floyd was right.
All hell broke loose. After months of COVID, months of uncertainty, deprivation and fear, the racism, the class divisions, the years of anger exploded in marches and even riots. Unity disappeared.
George Floyd died a horrible death. Even after all the silent COVID deaths, this one felt personal. It felt personal to everyone. Not just black people. Everyone. Everywhere. To see a uniformed man kneeling on the neck of a helpless victim for nine minutes was the “boot stamping on a human face — forever.” That officer’s face was the living image of “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.” 1984 had arrived. It did happen here. It wasn’t just George Floyd lying there. It was us.
Thousands marched in the US and beyond. Black Lives Matter leapt into action, banners dusted off, slogans voiced again. But these were old voices, tired voices, from Before. Yes, Black Lives Matter, but that wasn’t enough anymore.
Doctors fighting the clock on COVID, we valued their lives. Essential services workers going to work to put food and medicine into every home, we knew their lives mattered. These people came from every corner of the country, every race and creed and economic strata, and we appreciated every one. As we contemplated our own mortality in lockdown, alone, we knew this, too.
All Lives Matter.
As the marches continued, the nights turned violent. Retribution. Protectionism. Militias. Vigilantes. We lost faith in the system and took matters into our own hands.
In anger over George Floyd’s death, more people died. Start with one name and watch the branches spread like a poisoned family tree. Night after night, the anger and the despair mounted only to end in tragedy. White people, Latino, Black, police officers, shop owners, bystanders. Names you’ve never heard before. People you’ll never hear from again. David Dorn, David McAtee, Dorian Murrell, Italia Kelly, Marquis Tousant, Patrick Underwood, Calvin Horton Jr, James Scurlock, Javar Harrell, Bary Perkins III, Jorge Gomez, Jose Guttierrez, Victor Cazares Jr., Marvin Francois.
In response to a killing, we kill.
Whose Lives Matter?
Very little changes. Black people die, communities march, police officers get acquitted, the world moves on. It’s a predictable cycle, and the reason is simpler than most realize.
If race were a factor, increasingly diversified police departments should have resulted in fewer shootings. Or more shootings, if you’re cynical. But police departments have diversified. Three of the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray were black. One of the officers involved in the George Floyd death was Asian.
The diversification has led some to double down on the race factor. If the system can turn even minorities into racist murderers, that argues an even stronger bias against black lives.
It doesn’t, and the truth is even worse.
Americans, as a culture, do not believe that all lives matter. Ours is a culture of death. We value only those who succeed in the economy. This belief, that only certain lives merit survival, permeates the entire culture, from the penal system to health care, from welfare to international affairs, from rest homes to schools.
‘My life matters’. This is where most Americans would agree. Exceptionalism and a strong individualism forms the heart of our national character. That’s why preppers build bunkers, not food banks. It’s why gun sales spike during every crisis, not to defend neighbors, but to defend against them. Rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, Black and White, male and female all feel the intoxication of power as it is forcibly passed from one to another to another. As they fight for the whole pie, each of them fantasize how much easier this would be if the Other would just die.
Eat the Rich. Kill all Men. Kill Racism. Even a leading voice in Black Lives Matter was a man named Killer Mike.
As we fight for our individual lives, we do less to save others.
The Center of the Universe
Black Lives Matter empathizers feel it is racist and belittling to go beyond Black Lives Matter, and they are justified in thinking so. Right now, Black people are dying at a rate over five times the rest of the citizenry — from poverty, from crime, from police, from COVID, from a dozen more aggressors. The threat is real, and urgent, and dire. Black Lives Matter. We all need to recognize this and do everything we can.
If we resolved Black Lives Matter tonight, right now, if we abolished racism and embraced each other, what next? There are so many others waiting. Women’s lives matter. LGBT Lives Matter. Sick Lives Matter. Mentally Disabled Lives Matter. Immigrant Lives Matter. Foreign-citizen Lives Matter. We could spend decades tackling each one in isolation. We have. Or we could nip it in the bud.
They all matter.
Elie Wiesel wrote “Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.” Taken to heart, right now, every American is the center of the universe.
All lives matter. We made these words a voice of division as soon as they were uttered. In these Orwellian times, the word became code for the opposite of itself. The word “all” took away our individualism. “All” became you, not me, not us. All means all. Together.
In the early stages of COVID, how many people went undiagnosed because they couldn’t afford to see a doctor or get tested? How many people did they infect? How many of those people died? How many people did they infect before they died?
That some would be given a choice between death and work says it all. What kind of society cannot insure its populace against even one month of unemployment? An economy lived so close to the edge, so deeply in debt, that lives must be sacrificed to it, that is a sickness no health care system can cure. To die for an economy, forced to choose work over family, means human life has lost all meaning.
We’ve been so busy parsing our victimhood into smaller and smaller factions that we’ve divided and conquered ourselves. When the race or gender or birth nation or politics of the dead matters, we are all closer to the grave.
This can be stopped.
Give police a three word mantra to repeat no matter who they are facing - All Lives Matter. Pass comprehensive health care reform so everyone who is sick has an equal chance to live. End the death penalty. Create comprehensive adoption reform to end the argument on abortion. Take lethal force out of the hands of the people. Take it from the police as well. Rehabilitate and treat criminals instead of doling out prison time. Treat every foreign combatant under the Geneva Convention whether they wear a uniform or not. Better yet, find alternatives to war.
You don’t think this is possible? Of course you don’t. How could you? You’re American.
America is dead last in every movement of history. America was one of the last nations on earth to abolish slavery. It was the last democracy to give women the right to vote. Even today, we’re fighting battles everyone else has won. America is one of the last OECD countries with a death penalty, with gun proliferation, with large prison populations, with privatized health care, and with so many people in poverty.
That’s too late for George Floyd. It’s too late for Frederick D. Partlow. It’s too late for the millions who came before them.
It doesn’t have to be too late for you.
There is Hope
In 2018, Washington State passed I-940, a police accountability measure that requires mental health training for police officers, requiring them to administer first aid to victims of deadly force, and requiring independent investigation into the use of deadly force including broadening the circumstances under which an officer can be charged. The measure was crafted after the 2016 fatal shooting of unarmed pregnant mother Jacqueline Salyers in Tacoma, but it followed 213 police killings in the decade prior.
The legislation that may serve as a model for other states started small. There were no nationwide or international protests, no looting or killings related to her death. It was spurred on by Jackie’s mother Lisa Earl through meetings held in the Puyalup Tribe’s Little Wild Wolves Youth/Community center. Gradually, families of other shooting victims joined. “It seemed like the police went on some sort of a killing spree,” Lisa said, “and our circle kept getting bigger and bigger.” Lisa’s organization, Justice for Jackie, joined 20 other groups to become De-Escalate Washington.
Before it went to ballot, the group sat down with police representatives to work out the details. They knew the police unions would immediately lean their considerable weight against the measure, so they pro-actively sought input from those groups. When the law passed, they celebrated with initiative supporters and law enforcement groups with the theme “Building bridges between law enforcement and the community.”
The first successful legislation to reign in police killings was a collaborative, non-partisan effort. In a promotional video encouraging a “yes” on the ballot, former Seattle Chief of Police Jim Pugel sat beside Monika Williams, the sister of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four shot and killed by the two police officers responding to her report of a burglary.
If it still matters to you, Charleena was Black, the two officers whiite. Jim is white and Monika is Black. What matters is that they worked together, sat side by side, to solve the problem.
This year, Seattle’s mayoral candidate and co-executive director of Creative Justice Nikkita Oliver said “I think people are awakening to the fact that the system has actually been set up to work for almost none of us.”
If you want a picture of the future, imagine two people talking in measured discourse toward a common goal that allows people to live.
If you’ll work for me, I’ll work for you. Not for the color of our skin or our country of origin, not for the wealth we do or do not have, not our creed or religion, but because your life matters to me. Together we’ll survive this.
Maybe, together, we will plaster decals on every police cruiser in America with the slogan “All Lives Matter”.