It’s been two years since the killing of an 18-year-old unarmed African American teen named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Gunned down by a white Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson, the murder sparked two weeks of protest from unarmed Black Lives Matter demonstrators carrying signs proclaiming, ‘I Am Mike Brown’ and ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.’ They faced off against a militarized force of Ferguson police using armored vehicles and rooftop snipers. It was a visual demonstration – as clear as when Birmingham police chief Bull Connor turned German Shepherds and water hoses on African American school children in 1963 – of how far a white supremacist police structure would be willing to protect a social hierarchy that made black bodies expendable, their deaths explainable, and the protests of the black community discountable.
But Ferguson was also a pivot point for the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement that started as a hashtag, created three years prior by three Black women, two of whom are queer, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi. Ferguson would prove to be the catalyst for Black Lives Matter moving from being a #hashtag movement to a tangible one in the streets of America. And as it has matured, the potential for it to become the most powerful mass movement for racial justice in the 21st Century, is real.
Watching Black Lives Matter activists in Ferguson, I knew that there would be blowback, particularly from the white community, over this direct confrontation of white police power. After all, when Black Lives Matter was formed after the acquittal of non-police officer, George Zimmerman, for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2011, one of the initial reactions of many white America was ‘All Lives Matter.’
But a curious thing happened in the two years from Ferguson. More white, Asian, and Latino allies began understanding, translating to their own communities, and fighting along side African Americans, behind the Black Lives Matter banner. Instead of embracing intentional ignorance over the meaning of Black Lives Matter, multiracial allies owned the work of opening up a dialogue over systemic police brutality, including white bodies being killed from police lethal use of force.
Over the past two years, it’s clear that one of the genius moves by founders Garza, Tometi, and Cullors, was to make Black Lives Matter a grassroots, non-hierarchal, and inclusive movement. Traditionally, black racial justice movements have been primarily patriarchal and top down, from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund being led by Thurgood Marshall, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Panthers led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and hundreds of others, black women, gays and lesbians usually stay in the background.
By rejecting that patriarchal model, and giving power to grassroots chapters versus a main corporate headquarters, Black Lives Matter empowered women like Marissa Johnson, a Black Lives Matter activist from Seattle, to disrupt a Bernie Sanders campaign stop on the one-year anniversary of the death of Mike Brown. Her demands? That Sanders, who’d to date, had couched all of his policies in economic terms, both acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement, and create policy surrounding systemic racism. Days later, Sanders hired a Black Lives Matter activist and put together a policy paper on police brutality. That one act, along with Black Lives Matter protests throughout the Democratic presidential nomination process, like when protesters confronted the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, resulted in talk about systemic racism and police brutality becoming part of the 2016 presidential campaign on the Democratic side.
But Ferguson also taught us something else that should be a warning shot for those who support the Black Lives Matter movement. Since the Black Lives Matter movement is one that intentionally goes without a leader, there are people who wish to fill the void. African American racial justice organizations have always been destroyed through the targeting of so-called leaders who, once neutralized, have the effect of making the organization impotent. But more importantly, Black Lives Matter is successful because it doesn’t need a man leading it. It’s a racial social justice organization that wasn’t founded by men, and yes, that’s a good thing. By having black men take a step back from using our privilege to drown out the voices of black women, gays, lesbians and transgendered people, it allows us to see the full humanity within our community.
By being inclusive, Black Lives Matter also did something that most African American racial justice movements strive to do, but often fail. Black Lives Matter moved from being a domestic movement to an international one. By connecting Black Lives to a worldwide fight against white supremacy and policing minority communities, you see Black Lives Matter movements in England, France, Australia, and throughout the world. The crisis of systemic racism and oppressive policing is not an America phenomenon; it is a global problem.
Of course, not everything has gone smoothly over the past two years. There was the dangerous accusation from some in white America that being supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement was being anti-police, which was, as mother would say … was a bold face lie. But like the infamous Joseph Goebbels, the notorious Nazi Minister of Propaganda once said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Telling and retelling that lie of Black Lives Matter being anti-police was the goal of the political right in this country, and often was part of the talking points for the police, as they tried to connect any violence against the police to the Black Lives Matter movement.
A confluence of that big lie to real life events happened after five Dallas police officers were murdered during a peaceful Black Lives Matter march over the police killings of two black men: Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn., and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. And when three Baton Rouge police officers were killed by a Missouri man, it seemed like the big lie about Black Lives Matter being anti-police would destroy the organization. But it didn’t.
Instead, those affiliated with Black Lives Matter gathered to create a comprehensive set of policy solutions first with Campaign Zero last year, and now the Movement for Black Lives. For every Black Lives Matter critic who asked, ‘What is the goal of Black Lives Matter?’ These campaigns lay out solutions from police brutality, demilitarizing police, the broken windows polices that create over policing in black and minority communities, to independent boards to investigate police shootings. It’s comprehensive, and also just the beginning. Future Black Lives Matter policy positions will take on issues like immigration reform and immigration rights.
It’s the sign of a maturing social movement that in just two years, Black Lives Matter moved from the streets of Ferguson to affecting policy in this country. And like all other racial justice movement, it too will morph into a more complex organization as it grows through the years. But what Black Lives Matter won’t do is go away. And that’s probably Mike Brown’s greatest legacy. That his death help empower a Black Lives Matter movement that will eventually prevent future Mike Browns.