Whiting Out Black Lives Matter
By Dr. Melina Abdullah
Until Nov. 9, 2016, the night of the presidential election, Black Lives Matter (BLM) was a force that not only demonstrated in the streets, disrupted business as usual and organized in black communities. It also was constantly on the air of virtually every media outlet in the nation. Brown faces, with the “Black Lives Matter activist” title chyroned beneath their names, regularly occupied at least one of the four quadrants filled by talking heads on MSNBC, CNN and local news shows, and any reference to policing or race in this nation was thought to be invalid without comment from Black Lives Matter.
The voices of BLM co-founders Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi were in high demand, and on-the-ground BLM organizers were regularly pulled into conversations about local efforts that had garnered national attention. We said the names of blacks killed by police and hashtagged them on social media so they reverberated through intense echo chambers, humanizing the victims and pushing back against police attempts to posthumously assassinate their characters.
Then, like the turning of a page, the changing of a channel, the dropping of a curtain, Black Lives Matter disappeared from the public sphere. The day after Donald Trump was named the newest occupant of the White House, Black Lives Matter no longer mattered to the mainstream press. And it must be framed that way: Black Lives Matter has been “whited out” of the national media, even as the work intensifies and the movement continues to grow. Media has either been duped by Trump’s weapons of mass distraction or is actually complicit in shifting public attention away from what is arguably the most significant movement of this generation.
Of course, the initial singular focus was to be expected. There was the shock of it all. No one expected “President” Trump to be an actual title—maybe an interesting hypothetical laughter-filled conversation over cocktails, but not the current frightening reality. Many believed the nation had evolved further than it had and could not fathom that blatant racism—far beyond polite anti-blackness—could strike a chord with the majority of white voters.
Somehow, liberals and progressives missed, or chose to ignore, the suppressed yet seething vitriol of a huge swath of white Americans who traded their grandfathers’ white sheets for their own red caps. For these white people, “Make America Great Again” was like holding up a noose, reminding black people of the targets seared onto their backs and affirming the disposability of indigenous people and brown folks. MAGA meant that (white) women knew to keep themselves “pretty” with blonde hair, red lipstick and closed mouths; that queer and trans folks were swept back into closets; and that the disabled were nuisances, not people. Under Trump’s America, poor people are poor because they deserve to be, and religious freedom means the right to recite Christian prayers in the Oval Office and lock Muslims out of the country while bombing their homelands. All this was jarring—especially to whites who see themselves as open and liberal.
For the Trump regime, the constant media attention is a second victory. Trump thrives off continual coverage of his agenda. The larger impact of this shift is the way power is being redirected away from the people and growing mass movements and monopolized by the white-supremacist-patriarchal-heteronormative capitalism as embodied by Trump and his regime. Trump’s tweets, shake-ups and meltdowns are weapons of mass distraction meant to draw attention, diverting it from the resistance movements he loathes. They are an attempt to quash any viable alternatives to his intention to swiftly sweep virtually all resources and power into the hands of his own class. For Trump, Black Lives Matter must be brought down because it not only directly challenges his agenda but also calls for the end of a system of policing that protects his class interests.
Media is not without agency in this. If media is truly free (and that is questionable given the corporate ownership of mainstream media), it must challenge the Trump agenda in two important ways. First, those who would be most impacted by the new regime’s agenda must be asked for perspective on what all this means to them. Next, at some point (like now), the shock of the Trump presidency must subside and we must engage in real discussions about the future of this nation, with movement organizers talking about agendas and positions those agendas define.The media is vital to resistance movements—and to black resistance movements in particular. Media has been a tool since the antislavery movement. “David Walker’s Appeal,” published in 1829, was distributed to black free and enslaved people. It encouraged them to rise up against chattel slavery, possibly serving as an impetus for the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion. During the first anti-lynching era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, black independent papers—best represented by Ida B. Wells’ Memphis Free Speech and Headlight—called for black outmigration, armament and economic independence.
As television news entered the homes of 90 percent of Americans by 1960, so, too, did the civil rights movement. The rise of television and coverage by print news and radio were a constant consideration for strategists like Martin Luther King Jr. who used images of black “pure nonviolence” to elicit emotion, grow the movement and appeal to the morality of the masses. Images of strong young black people wearing black berets and leather jackets and carrying guns into the California State Capitol helped push the Black Power movement into full swing. And the haunting image of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson’s lifeless body being frantically carried away from a South African police force that had opened fire on schoolchildren took the anti-apartheid movement global.
Most recently, we saw the innocence that danced out of the eyes of Tamir Rice; the sobs of Lezley McSpadden crying out for her murdered son, Mike Brown; the attempt of Diamond Reynolds’ 4-year-old to soothe her as they both witnessed the murder of Philando Castille; and the way Korryn Gaines attempted to mother and comfort her 5-year-old son—even as she died from bullets fired by Baltimore police. And there were so many more heartbreaking, enraging images, words and phrases—like Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe”—that poured life into the Black Lives Matter movement.
Media, when done responsibly, amplifies voices and perspectives that might not otherwise be heard. It is a check on power, a balancing of moneyed interests with those who have fewer resources. For resistance and other transformative movements, demonstration and mass action are meant to disrupt systems of oppression and raise public awareness. Resistance has a theatrical component that meets its fullest potential when there is an audience. When organized actions are not covered by media, when voices are muted and perspectives are drowned out, it severely limits the reach of movements. Demonstrations might disrupt the status quo and get messages out to immediate circles, but the ability to elicit mass support is significantly thwarted.
In the little more than six months since Trump has taken office, 594 people have been killed by police, 22 percent of those people black (double the proportion of the black population) and an additional 19 percent of “unknown” race. These are almost identical numbers to those of 2016, when news coverage of these killings was at a high.
Black Lives Matter has responded to new killings and continuing cases through mass demonstrations and constant pressure at public meetings. It bird-dogs elected and appointed officials, calls for the firing of police chiefs (like LAPD’s Charlie Beck, who leads the most murderous department in the nation), demands the prosecution of officers who kill and brutalize our people and provides support to families most impacted by state violence. BLM also engages in acts of nonviolent direct action, doing policy work, conducting community canvasses, making budget demands, proposing community-based solutions, making independent media (like the “clapback” against the National Rifle Association), engaging in spiritual work (like the national #SacredResistance effort launched in April), participating in political artistry and much more. Since its founding just four years ago, the ranks of Black Lives Matter has swelled globally to 40 chapters and upward of 10,000 members.
Black Lives Matter is moving from its infancy to its institution-building stage, with a sophisticated platform and abolitionist agenda that calls for the dismantling of prisons and policing as we know them and intense investment in the resources that make communities safe, peaceful and healthy—like permanent housing, mental health services, quality education, youth programs, good jobs with good wages, and arts and culture programs. The method is called “disrupt and build”: At the same time hundreds of folks pour into the streets and successfully demand the firing of the officers who killed Kisha Michael and Marquintan Sandlin in Inglewood, Calif., BLM is also preparing the next generation for leadership with Youth Activist Camps and Freedom Schools offered worldwide this summer. There is plenty for mainstream media to cover.Instead, though, the faces that occupy television screens have faded back to pre-Obama-era monochrome, with the occasional media person of color incestuously plucked from other network news programs and one or two network “contributors” peppered in. The talking heads now speak exclusively to the latest Trump antics—with no mention of Charleena Lyles who was killed by Seattle police in front of three of her children after she called for help with a suspected burglary, or of the “in policy” rulings in the separate deaths of 14-year-old Jesse Romero and 18-year-old scholar-athlete Kenny Watkins, both killed by Los Angeles police. Networks say news-show ratings are at an all-time high, but public opinion surveys show there is a public desire to shift away from the singular focus on Donald Trump.
Public Black Lives Matter forums continue to draw capacity crowds, like the recent standing-room-only crowd at Politicon. There is no shortage of items that require a Black Lives Matter perspective—even within the Trump agenda: the recent call for increased police brutality by Donald Trump (and the giddy laughter and applause of police receiving the message); the deploying of federal troops to Chicago, making black communities literally occupied territories; calls for an end to affirmative action and the erosion of public education; and the contrast between the swift action taken against Minneapolis police officers when they killed Justine Damond—a white bride-to-be—and the closing of ranks when members of the same department killed Jamar Clark and Philando Castille. If media is to be a check on institutional power, then mainstream media must be challenged to not become the public relations arm of the Trump regime, either intentionally or tacitly.
While coverage by mainstream media has been a useful tool, mainstream media is also corporate media and essentially shares the class interests of the regime we seek to topple. As movements grow and evolve, it is imperative that we recognize, support, utilize and invest in independent media that is more willing to offer alternative perspectives that challenge the existing hegemony.
Black Lives Matter must refuse to give power to Trump or complicit media to white out our movement. We cannot become demoralized and actually believe the “movement is dead” stories in the media. We must commit ourselves more fully to the movement and on-the-ground efforts, and we must apply the disrupt-and-build model to our media strategy—building alternative outlets and disrupting media that advances oppressive propaganda and attempts to mute our voices. Black Lives still Matter, whether it makes news headlines or not.
Dr. Melina Abdullah is a California State University professor at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement in Los Angeles.