Story by Pete Shaw
The Black Lives Matter movement, which sprang up in the wake of the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman, exploded into a major ongoing human rights struggle a little over a year ago with Michael Brown’s murder by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. The revolt has been instrumental in pushing the US public to confront the fact that people of color, particularly Black people, experience a very different reality than white people in the United States It’s a reality that has been true for the entire history of this country, a reality complete with violence and indignities that most white people cannot fathom.
The organizing in various Portland groups working for greater justice for Black people, including Black Lives Matter and Don’t Shoot Portland, is largely being led by young people who are continuing the civil rights work of their predecessors. Their message is mostly positive and motivated by the simple desire to be treated with the dignity and respect that all humans deserve. The phrase Black Lives Matter is not intended to raise the value of Black lives over other lives; it is an affirmation and a demand that Black lives must matter as much as any others.
Thus, when people respond by saying all lives matter, they are missing the point. As just about any person involved in these groups will tell you, of course all lives matter. But when Black people are being killed by police and vigilantes once every 28 hours, it is clear that some lives matter less than others. That must change. And when that changes–when Black people and all people of color are truly valued simply because they are alive–then, and only then, will all lives matter.
Though working for a positive outcome, the language and actions of the Black Lives Matter movement can seem disruptive, inconvenient, and even uncomfortable That is the point–to draw an awareness and understanding to the everyday indignities and injustices that Black people endure and in so doing to reach for a world where, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, people would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
It seems especially important right now to consider the positivity of the message in the wake of a new Portland police campaign called “Having Enough Police Matters,” a crude and obvious co-opting of the Black Lives Matter movement. The police have installed a sign with that slogan on a billboard across from the Unitarian Church downtown, seemingly placed to counter the “#Black Lives Matter” banner hanging from the church.
The billboard sign shows an empty swing, but the shadow it casts has a child seated on it. The implication is clear, that the child has either been kidnapped or killed. It is the language of fear.
The new campaign depicts a tone deafness that perhaps borders on willful cruelty, considering the history of a police force that includes leaving dead opossums in front of a Black owned business and wearing “Smoke ’em, don’t choke ’em” t-shirts after a Portland police officer choked to death a Black man. Did no one in the Portland Police Bureau consider Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy whom a Cleveland, Ohio police officer murdered on a playground?
Perhaps the Portland police have realized how bad that looks. Its online campaign now features a prowler breaking into a house as well as a couple of tires by a tree, implying a bicycle has been stolen.
This campaign comes at a time when the last thing this city needs is more police. The history of police is one of violence and repression. The job of police is to keep down, often brutally, any group of people who might organize and seek to change the system that oppresses them–historically people of color. In short, for many people, the police more resemble an occupying force that commits acts of terror than a group whose goal is to serve and protect the community. We have more than enough police.
For over 5 years community members–at times over 100–have gathered on the 12th of every month at 6 PM on the corner of NE 6th and Halsey to remember the lives of Keaton Otis and his father, Fred Bryant. Otis was executed by the Portland police on May 12, 2010, and Bryant passed away almost two years ago, struggling for justice not just for his son, but for all Black people and all victims of police violence. The vigils are powerful, always pushing for justice, demanding that memory never be extinguished, that it always light the way.
Those lights are important. They get under the skin, demanding reflection and consistently posing a challenge to the goodness–the thirst for justice–that we believe lies within us. Pushing, pushing, pushing. As Ahjamu Umi of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party often says, “Forward ever, backwards never.”
“Having Enough Police Matters” is an affront to the possibility of Black people achieving justice. The unequal treatment Black people receive at the hands of police will not be solved by adding more police to a rotten barrel from which there appears to be no intention of discarding the so-called bad apples. In over 30 years not one Portland police officer has been held accountable for killing anyone, including Keaton Otis. Addressing this deficit is where change must begin.
If “Having Enough Police Matters” in Portland, Black lives still do not.