Whose Lives Matter?

An example of one of the ads put out by the anti-abortion group That's Abortion.

(Abigail Bereola)– The first instance of police brutality I ever read about was Sean Bell. The year was 2006 and I was in seventh grade. Bell was 23, leaving his bachelor party a few hours before he was meant to get married, when five police officers shot 50 bullets into his car. Bell died. Two of his friends were wounded. The three indicted officers were acquitted of all charges. This was the first instance that I learned about, but certainly not the last—there are plenty of names that I know and even more that I don’t. Even since the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO on August 9th of this year—the event that spurred the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Awareness Week here at the college—there have been many more black lives taken by those who are called to serve and protect.

I do not fear for my brothers in the way that many of my friends do. I desire their well-being and worry for their safety—this may be tied up in what I know about the police, but I think a lot of what I worry about are things that anybody with a brother might worry about. Perhaps my lack of fear is misguided. My brothers are both in their thirties, but there is no such thing as being too old to be considered a threat. Eric Garner, a father like one of my brothers, was 43 years old when he was killed this past summer. Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor, was 58 when he was seen as being too black (and a host of other stereotypes that come with that) to reside in his Cambridge neighborhood. A Portuguese-American woman who worked in his neighborhood and the police officer who responded perceived that Gates was breaking-and-entering into his own house. Implicit in these encounters is the idea that it doesn’t matter if you’re an intellectual or not if you’re black—regardless of the levels of achievement you manage to access, you’re still an inherent threat.

I do fear for my nephew, 6’ 3” and still growing, for whom a masculinity to be feared is projected onto his stature and the depth of his voice and the brown of his skin, but he is just fifteen. I fear for my sixteen-month-old nephew. At what point will this sweet baby—the one who babbles whispers just before it is time to go to sleep and the one whose joy is palpable on his face and in his voice when we FaceTime and the one who has a pensive face that suggests he is a weary old man who has seen the world a thousand times, the one who has captured my heart in ridiculous ways—at what point will he be old enough to be considered a threat?

I have a black father, a black mother, two black brothers, a black sister, two black nephews, and a black niece, not to mention a host of black in-laws, cousins, aunts, and uncles. I, myself, am black. It may seem unnecessary, but I say this because this is not simply a topic of intellectual debate for me and the other students on this campus who exist in similar positions. We were not granted the choice to choose the skin that we are in. And yet, people sharing our same hue are killed for it. This is not solely an issue for black men. There is a narrative that exists which frames the problems that black men face as exceptional, particularly in comparison to black women. Though we share the same skin color, oftentimes the texture of what we face is different.

A few years ago, I was in the backseat of my parents’ car, traveling down International Boulevard in Oakland, California. As I looked up and out of the passenger’s side window, I saw a billboard, the words “Black & Beautiful” plastered over the image of a sleeping black baby with “toomanyaborted.com/ca” at the bottom of the frame. In Oakland, where I was born, 60 such billboards could be found throughout the city, targeting black women. This billboard paralleled many throughout the country at the time, billboards that proclaimed, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” I don’t believe this to be true. I would have to say that the most dangerous place for an African American is in the world. This is why there are black women who worry about bringing children into the world, for fear of what might happen to them—for fear that their lives will not be full and fulfilling, and may be ended prematurely by someone who thinks that ‘black’ and ‘thug’ are synonymous.

These billboards were conjured in my memory when, on the night of October 20, anti-abortion posters appeared on the Amherst College campus, juxtaposed with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ posters which had been put up in the previous week. The posters featured images such as baby hands, baby feet, and the face of a black baby. There were statistics and quotes from Mother Teresa and Dr. Seuss, quotes like “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish” and “A person’s a person no matter how small” and “Planned Parenthood, the largest seller of abortions in the United States, has located 80% of its abortion clinics in minority neighborhoods, disproportionally targeting minorities for abortion” and “Of the women obtaining abortions in any given year, about 47% of them have had at least one previous abortion. All Lives Matter” and “The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion because if a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me?” Though the scope of the posters would seem to suggest so, this situation, in particular, is not a ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’ issue’—many students who were offended by the posters would identify as ‘pro-life’ or ‘anti-abortion.’ Whether or not this was the intent, the ‘All Lives Matter’ posters invoked a decades-old narrative of blaming black women for the plight of their men.

In a 1965 report on ‘The Negro Family’ penned by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he writes that households headed by black women “seriously [retard] the progress of the group as a whole, and [impose] a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well” since the structure of these households “is so out of line with the rest of American society.” The report implicitly names black women as part of the reason for the perceived lack of success that black men as a group have seen in the United States by inscribing deviance onto our bodies and calling our competency into question through the idea that black women cannot lead a household. This has been perpetuated continuously in the media by celebrities and politicians alike, including President Barack Obama. As is often the case for people of color, in the instance of Linda Taylor (who former President Ronald Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’ perpetuation was based off of), an individual case was extrapolated to be the identity of the whole group, but in reality, on the 1930 census, Linda Taylor was identified as a white woman. She just posed as other races as it suited her and in the popular imagination, her body became inscribed as that of a black woman. The imagery of the welfare queen lends itself to other narratives, including the narrative that black women are irresponsible women who can’t keep a man, can’t adequately take care of our own children, and who are perpetually duping the system. This is the legacy that the posters called upon. Since abortion is a gendered issue, juxtaposing police brutality and the killing of black people with abortion doesn’t implicate men—it aims to call into question the ethical integrity of black women.Whether or not this was the intended message, it is the message that was received.

The ‘Black Lives Matter’ Awareness Week was meant to shed light on the issue of police brutality and how it affects black bodies. The fact is, we aren’t talking about people’s hurt feelings. We are talking about people, with hopes and dreams living their lives just like you, whose lives are taken from them by people who are supposed to be upholders of the law. We are talking about systemic perpetuations of inequality furthered by institutions and manifested in interpersonal relationships. All lives matter, yes. But black lives have been systemically devalued since slavery. The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ is meant to elevate the discussion surrounding black lives to the level of humanity, not to demote anyone else. When you say ‘all lives matter,’ are you including the validity of black lives, or countering it? The ‘Black Lives Matter’ Awareness Week may be over, but these issues continue on. If you want to debate abortion, fine. Bring your statistics. Show your face. Create a space for it. Hijacking the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign with an anonymous attack was not the way to do it.