“These protests aren’t even about George Floyd.” “People aren’t rioting because of George Floyd.” These statements were commonplace several months ago, and are still being used, though George Floyd is not always the name invoked. Each time that I have heard or read something akin to those ideas, I thought to myself, “Well yes, obviously.”
The people saying those things are not completely wrong; the protests and civil unrest that have occurred over the past several months are not only because of George Floyd. In many ways his murder was a catalyst for the protests, marches, boycotts and riots that have followed. But as many have acknowledged, the way that he died, and even some of his last words, “I can’t breathe,” were not unique to him.
No, what is going on is not just about George Floyd. What’s going on isn’t even just about police brutality. The United States is not free from oppression, no matter how much we talk about how far the country has come from the days of persecution against indigenous peoples or openly acknowledged slavery.
This movement is about how far the country has not come. It’s about the indifference toward and continued persecution of indigenous people. It’s about the rebranded modern enslavement within our carceral system. It’s about the United States running concentration camps. It’s about taking access to health care away from transgender people, black women receiving different medical treatment than other people, and more things than I can enumerate in this article.
It’s important to have a clear understanding of what is happening right now to avoid questions like “Well, the officers who murdered George Floyd were already arrested, why are people still so upset?” or the frustrating “Don’t all lives matter?” or statements like Governor Cuomo’s “You don’t need to protest, you won.” To be clear, the sum of everything that is happening right now isn’t just “The Black Lives Matter Movement,” it’s a civil rights movement.
That may be hard to grasp because so many people think that the period of fighting for civil rights in the United States ended in the late sixties. That’s a failure of the education system and a large part of the issue at hand. But the comparison articles and photos between current events and the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties are not a coincidence.
The statement “Black Lives Matter” is a call to action, to stand with Black people as they fight for the right to live. Black Lives Matter is an organization, an important one that is on the forefront of this new civil rights movement, but is only one part of something much larger. The Black Lives Matter Movement is part of the larger civil rights movement, though not all-encompassing.
The idea behind both the statement and the organization is intervening in violence against Black people and eradicating white supremacy. The second goal is important to note, because eradicating white supremacy makes things more equitable for everyone.
Unfortunately people get hung up on the phrasing “Black Lives Matter” or other messages and start to believe that people are advocating for black supremacy or some such fictional concept. Though that concern is not warranted anyway, the current push for criminal justice reform, defunding the police, and community investment among a host of other issues goes beyond the statement “Black Lives Matter,” and the work goes beyond the organization.
So let’s be clear about what is going on right now and what people are supporting or not supporting. Supporting the protesters, and the destruction of oppressive systems means supporting people who are fighting for civil rights, the time for which has long since arrived.
Opposing the protesters means opposing civil rights in favor of white supremacy, overinvestment in a militarized police and underinvestment in communities. Staying silent means staying out of the fight for civil rights, justice, equity and equality.
This distinction is important. Many of those same rights that Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking about in his speeches are the same things that people are talking about today. So don’t separate what is going on right now from the past because you’d like to believe that the United States has come so far since then. Some of the key figures may have changed, some of the organizations and their words may have changed, but we are still fighting for civil rights.
So if you’ve ever wondered “What would I have done during the civil rights movement?” or more generally “What would I do in the face of oppression?” then reflect. Ask yourself right now “What have I been doing recently?” The answer to those questions is probably the same.