This week at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Los Gatos, we got a voicemail from a concerned citizen, expressing their dismay that we would choose to fly a Black Lives Matter flag. Since I may not have a chance to sit down and speak with this neighbor in a constructive way, I thought I’d take the opportunity to pen a few thoughts in hopes it could be a teachable moment for us all.
Our neighbor expressed two main points in their call, I’d like to address them both. They were:
All lives matter, not just black lives. And
BLM has done “atrocious things” and nothing to contribute any good to our cities.
To the first point. I agree, dear neighbor, all lives DO matter!
In fact, as Unitarian Universalists, our first principle is about honoring “the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person.” You don’t get more concerned with “all lives” than that!
What’s the problem then? It’s that we’re creating a false dichotomy between ‘All Lives Matter’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. The slogan doesn’t say “Black Lives Matter Exclusively”, it doesn’t say they matter more than anyone else’s. It just says that they matter. To state that Black Lives Matter in no way contradicts the fact that all lives matter. All lives do matter, but not all lives need the same kind of attention, because all lives are not under the same type of threat that black lives are.
I think there’s some misunderstanding about what this slogan represents. The phrase gained viral popularity in response to police and other violence against African American people. It is a decentralized movement with no hierarchical organization. To align oneself with the sentiment that Black Lives Matter is not to sign up for a political view that demeans other kinds of lives, but to hold up the reality of systemic inequity so that it can be addressed.
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Los Gatos is an anti-racist organization. That means that we cannot support any slogan that demeans any group on the basis of their race/culture/skin tone. Fortunately, the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ does not demean any group, but rather holds up the inherent dignity and worth of a group that has been systematically demeaned for the majority of our nation’s history.
To the second claim, that BLM has done “atrocious things,” and nothing to contribute any good to our cities. I’ll first remind us that while there are organizations that use Black Lives Matter in their name or materials, this is a decentralized movement, with no one holding a trademark to that slogan. In this sense, we cannot say that Black Lives Matter has done anything.
I think I know what you mean here though, dear neighbor. The news coverage of widespread protests throughout the summer of 2020 was very scary. It certainly looked like a group of violent “thugs'' were bent upon widespread destruction. A more careful review of the data though will show that these protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. According to the Harvard Radcliffe Institute’s report, “our data suggest that 96.3% of events involved no property damage or police injuries, and in 97.7% of events, no injuries were reported among participants, bystanders or police.” https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/news-and-ideas/black-lives-matter-protesters-were-overwhelmingly-peaceful-our-research-finds
The research shows that contrary to the scary images, these protests were remarkably peaceful. The above figures don't even include the opposite side of the story, the high degree of force used by police, and the unmarked van tactics employed by Trump’s secret police. These numbers also likely do not represent how much vandalism or violence was perpetrated by individuals not associated with the protests for black lives, or agents provocateur intentionally inciting violence in order to smear the public view of protesters.
I think we can put to rest the false idea that expressing concern for the welfare of black lives is equivalent to committing atrocities of any kind.
Whether this slogan and its associated movements have made a “positive contribution” to our cities will have to be a matter of personal opinion. If you believe that increasing awareness of police brutality is a positive contribution, then BLM has definitely made one. If you believe that expanding understanding of systematic racism in the USA is of benefit, then BLM has been of benefit. If you believe that widening interest in anti-racist work and a more equitable society for all lives is a positive contribution, then BLM has certainly made one.
To conclude, I think that we can see that “Black Lives Matter” means different things to different people. It’s a social media hashtag, a rallying cry for equality, a decentralized movement, and a Political Action Committee. Some also incorrectly believe that this slogan means that some lives matter less than others, this belief is the product of fear and misinformation. As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we believe that no lives matter less than others. Our principles hold up “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;” as a way of expressing our first principle of reverence and respect for “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”. (read more about our 7 principles here: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles)