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Jessie Williams recently delivered a resounding speech on racial justice and Black Lives Matter at the BET awards that drew a lot of praise and controversy. One of Williams most striking lines was aimed at critics of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander… If you have a critique for our resistance, you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people than do not make suggestions for those who do.”
The point was particularly poignant in the face of widespread criticism from White America about the methods of BLM. A common sentiment waged against BLM, even from white liberals in support of racial justice, is that it’s members should be sitting down to have a civil discussion rather than causing chaos and disruption.
We’ve Tried the Civil Route
That critique is not only nonsensical, as civil rights leaders like Cornel West have been engaged in a civil discussion with elites for decades, it plays on some nasty racial stereotypes of the uppity, angry black person.
When BLM interrupted a Bernie Sanders’ rally back in August of 2015, the response of Bernie’s supporters at the rally and on social media clearly displayed a major issue with how white liberals perceive black activists. Sanders’ followers were flabbergasted that BLM even had the nerve to protest him in the first place. How could you be protesting the most liberal candidate in the country? Why aren’t you interrupting a Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio rally? They’re the ones that discriminate.
In the critique lies the answer. BLM is well aware that Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio aren’t addressing the issues that they raise. They also know they never will. Instead, BLM wanted to push the Democratic candidates to include issues of racial justice and inequality into their policy platforms. And it worked.
During the time period, Bernie Sanders had little to say about racial justice. He was travelling the country lambasting the one percent and offering his vision of economic equality, but he wasn’t addressing black issues specifically. In the months that followed, Sanders’ added a racial justice platform to his policy proposals, earning the endorsements of black leaders like Cornel West, Nina Turner, and Ben Jealous. BLM didn’t make a mistake by protesting Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump, they made a strategic decision and it paid off in dividends.
The issues are personal for many BLM members
Many members of the Black Lives Matter movement aren’t just addressing some abstract idea of a racially just utopia, they’re protesting against things that affect them personally. If you grew up in a black neighborhood in America, chances are you’ve had family members and/or friends that have been harassed or killed by police or been locked in prison for nonviolent offenses. With this reality, it’s unsurprising that BLM is loud in their approach. Their voices have been silenced throughout the entirety of American history.
As eloquently discussed by Jessie Williams, most of the critics of BLM have no alternative solution. They want activists to stop all the noise, but don’t want to take the time to understand why the noise is being made in the first place. The only way black people have ever advanced in this country is through direct action, from the uprising of slaves to the protests of the Civil Rights movement. Black Lives Matter is taking the same direct action towards police brutality today. As Williams puts it:
“We are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country, or we will restructure their function and ours.”