How Do They Matter?

On April 20, 2015, the phrase #BlackLivesMatter became a Time Magazine headline, minus the hashtag and with a period at the end. Perhaps the imprimatur of Time now means that Black lives do matter, unequivocally, full stop. However, a change in punctuation that creates a declarative sentence in black and white cannot stop the systematic victimization of African American citizens. On May 1 Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby ruled Freddy Gray's death a homicide and issued warrants against six police officers involved with charges ranging from misconduct to assault to involuntary manslaughter to one count of second degree murder. This action might be understood as a form of "progress," although the threats of further death and destruction represented by the civil unrest there seem to be a deeply motivating factor.

Since February 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Florida, #BlackLivesMatter has traveled the globe and energized activists. Now we have to ask ourselves what the now-familiar phrase has become. It has a powerful place in our digital culture as a marker helping us find others outraged by the same injustices. This repetition of outrage, however, might also lead to cries of despair if the unjust acts cannot be systematically addressed. As one month slides into the next, I begin to wonder what the phrase does for actual black lives. Perhaps it has now grown into a cliché that does nothing.. In the last month alone, according to social media search and analytics site, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag has been used over 250,000 times on Twitter, about twice the number of people living in Charleston, SC and five times that of Sanford, Florida. It suggests affinity, even solidarity and sympathy, but it avoids the real questions: How do Black lives matter? To whom? In what ways?

When popular social sentiment becomes headline, it seems as if the cause has "arrived." But the Time cover represents not a Black life but a death. The cover photos show Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back. The subtitle reads "This time the charge is murder." There is nothing at all about life here. What we see here is the near pornographic display and repetition of killing. It is the end of life which is making news, not life itself. What we are really saying here is Black Deaths Matter. But that is nothing new in America. American history is riddled with the spectacles of dead African Americans. In the early 20th century, one could buy postcards of lynchings. The exposure of Black murders has been, over time, not a way of preventing such deaths, but a method of weaving them into the American consciousness. If it is black death that feeds the flow of news and discussion, the hashtag itself is deeply misleading.

If it's lives that matter, what is the effect of repeatedly viewing death? For my own part, it has gotten to the point where I can no longer watch. When upcoming "new video" is teased as news, I have to turn away from the spectacle of trauma that feeds the news machine and the produces the distilled outrage of social media. If it is black death that feeds the flow of news and discussion, the hashtag itself is deeply misleading.

When social sentiment becomes slogan, we risk mass producing an emotional response that runs the route of the worst kind campaign slogan. It is an advertisement of a kind of political credential or ideological belief that is an end in itself, rather than a means to transformation. There is no magic in these words that stops the killing of citizens by the forces that should be protecting them. As a kind of ritualized phrase, we use #BlackLivesMatter to tell us that they do, when the evidence at hand suggests that we are rather whistling past the graveyard.

There are people deeply and sincerely invested in #BlackLivesMatter. Alicia Garza, one the the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, smartly tapped into the power of social media to create awareness of an issue and energize people toward potential action. We should not doubt the sincerity of her convictions or depths of her political and social analysis. The problem with hastags, however, is that they don't always carry a great deal of depth with each usage.

The sheer number people using #BlackLivesMatter attests to our belief in the power of words to effect change. And of course, few people are suggesting that we stop there. The good intentions expressed by the hashtag will go to waste unless translate into more meaningful and concrete actions. And perhaps they will. My colleagues in the Dartmouth College Teaching Collective are currently offering a rigorous course by that title, and students are enthusiastic. Enthusiasm born from a limit of 140 characters, however, is sometimes difficult to sustain and also lacks a depth of understanding. The website urges us to: "Get Active, Get Organized, Fight Back." That is a fight that has been going on in various ways for centuries, and it remains to us to continue the battle. To do so we also need to get educated. It's not enough to express a moral outrage over such incidents. We need to know how and why such things are part of the fabric of American life, rather than an anomaly. Such knowledge cannot and must not be limited to Black people alone. It must stand at the core of how we see the United States. Black History Month, is not a month. It is every minute of every day. We cannot understand who we are as a nation or where we have come from, without deepening our understanding of how #BlackLivesMatter.

Let us continue to speak up, speak out and show the world our political sentiments, but let us also move to action. If each hashtag becomes a direct contact with someone involved with Black lives, what could happen? What might be trending three years from now? If we can tell our friends and family how and why Black lives have, historically, not mattered as much, can we transform and reform minds? We can avoid a morbid melancholia over Black deaths and instead link together all our lives and work towards a vision in which they matter.