#LanguageMatters

Penn State student Zaniya Joe wears a piece of tape over her mouth that says 'Black Lives Matter' during a Ferguson protest o
Penn State student Zaniya Joe wears a piece of tape over her mouth that says 'Black Lives Matter' during a Ferguson protest organized by a group of Penn State University students on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in University Park, Pa. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/TNS via Getty Images)

A year ago this past Friday, Eric Garner was strangled to death for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. He was unarmed, non-violent, and standing on a sidewalk in broad daylight. He pleaded with his attacker to loosen his grip, saying repeatedly - 11 times, in fact - that he could not breathe. We know this because it was caught on camera, filmed in entirety by a bystander. His murderer was cleared of any wrongdoing by a Staten Island Grand Jury, though the death was ruled a homicide. Many people were, in fact, unsurprised by this. This is not speculation; these are the facts. This past Friday marks a year that he's been gone.

As we just marked the anniversary, we should all take some time to mourn, and to reflect. It is true that there has been demonstrable change this year; in New York, for instance, we have a new "neighborhood policing" model which aims, according to its proponents, to bridge the divide between the NYPD and impoverished Black and Latino communities that feel targeted by it; the Governor has appointed a special prosecutor to focus on cases in which police kill unarmed civilians; and more nationally, we've sparked a crucial conversation, long overdue, about the symbology of white supremacy, and the ways in which emblems like the Confederate Flag bolster ahistorical, racist narratives of American history, and encourage hate, and violence. Whether people of more color will feel the effects of these changes in their day-to-day life remains to be seen.

For my part, I don't see how communities will become sustainably safer in New York City if we hire more police recruits without working proactively and commensurately to provide more economic opportunities for unemployed, "at-risk" youth and their families. The same holds true for addressing education or housing in these areas. Similarly, it's great to see a dip in shootings in some neighborhoods. And as the NYPD touts their adapted and promising approach to neighborhood policing, by its nature it means more interactions between community members and police. For some, that is precisely what gives many community members pause. Similarly, the appointment of a special prosecutor is a step in the right direction; police who abuse or misuse their power should face due justice. But we want to cease the routine destruction of Black and Brown bodies, not just slightly revise how we address the events after the fact. And, while a 5.9 million dollar settlement makes headlines, it doesn't come close to restoring a man's life, or bringing his killer to justice.

So while it's clear that wheels are in motion, it is patently absurd to think that we've come close to rectifying the institutional racism that pervades our system of criminal justice in New York City, our housing policy, our police force, and the way in which we sustain a critical dialogue with each other and through the media, about race in the United States. We have serious, difficult work ahead of us and it is incumbent upon us to choose our words with care. Language can be an unwieldy thing. In social media and hashtag discourse, sometimes the effect of our words runs greatly afoul of our intentions. While I believe wholeheartedly in the sentiment behind #AllLivesMatter, its proponents must recognize that as a direct response to the profound #BlackLivesMatter it feels, to those pressing for justice, like an unfair retort to a sentiment that was never expressed in the first place. Some people may be using #AllLivesMatter with the intent to actually further historic discrimination, while others may be using it with no ill intent, thinking it's benign in nature. Such a response belies an inability to realize an actuality of history and the present state of Black communities. Without the ability to recognize that, how can real effective change or corrective action take hold?

As an elected representative of residents of the 45th District, but more so as a resident of New York myself, I want to live in a city, and in a country, where anyone, regardless of their race or creed, can feel safe and respected in their community. Crucially, #BlackLivesMatter has never suggested the contrary; no one is saying that White lives don't matter. Of course #whitelivesmatter and #BlueLivesMatter. It's a fact that #EveryLifeMatters, but we must be prudent to prevent a chorus of voices from becoming a cacophony. In other words, what statistical or other analysis supports that those direct responses are needed? Such a response suggests an "underlying logic" as Charles Blow put it "...that blacks are possessed of some form of racial pathology."

However, let's be frank. Our economy, educational institutions, and criminal justice system show that #WhiteLivesMatter every single day. This movement was born as a response to the killing of unarmed Black civilians, specifically. It is about a public health crisis that we are acclimated to, a quotidian situation that would seem downright dystopian and nightmarish in any other industrialized country. More, it is about the fact that it is sometimes easier to get a job as a White American with a criminal record than as a Black person without one. It is about how the unemployment rate for Black Americans is over 10%, and has been consistently twice the rate of White unemployment for half a century, which is at a slight 4.6%. It is about how the high school graduation rate for White Americans is nearly 20% higher than for Blacks. It is about the millions of Black and Brown Americans whose lives are decimated by the criminal justice system, and who languish in prison for petty offenses, like Kalief Browder. It is about Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Chantel Davis, Walter Scott, Eric Garner and, on and on; who were charged, sentenced, and killed on the spot, ostensibly for the crime of being Black or Brown in this country. It is about dropping political correctness and calling a spade a spade.

#BlackLivesMatter, like "Black Is Beautiful" before it, is the affirmation of our worth as black people, in spite of these realities. I applaud the young people for declaring that they recognize their worth and demand that others recognize it too; sadly, sometimes young people must make this demand even to themselves.

At the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner's death, we have the opportunity to work together to make monumental, effective change. We've already opened up mainstream lines of dialogue about the structural issues left in the wake of Slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow; the institutional mechanisms that treat people of more color like second-class citizens; who are targeted by their supposed protectors, and treated as if their lives are inconsequential, and expendable. We've made strides because we've chosen our words carefully, saying things that people have felt for a long time but have not been able to say. Things that are true, and, for some, are not easy to hear. This conversation should be nothing if not challenging. Let's not cheapen our discourse, not now, when it matters more than ever. Because for this particular argument, at this particular time, an acknowledgement of the sanctity of all lives through the phrases #All, #White, #Blue, and #PurpleLivesMatter is almost like getting only a settlement as recompense for a murder.

That is simply, to borrow a phrase from Gwen Carr, not a victory. Actually, it's a step back.