Jesse Savin – Contributor

The Black Lives Matter movement did not succeed. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The Black Lives Matter has yet to succeed. For anyone who believes #BLM was an Arab Spring of anti-racism in America, they are sorely in need of a history lesson. While the branding and trendiness of Civil Rights have certainly adapted and thrived in the 21st century’s digital landscape, this has been a decidedly underdog match-up for centuries. 

On August 28th, 2020, I was in Washington, D.C., attending a rally at the Lincoln Memorial organized by Al Sharpton and the family of George Floyd. At the height of the pandemic, well before we had any idea we may be out of the woods and able to safely congregate by this upcoming July 4, tens of thousands of people masked up and came out to stand side by side in our nation’s capital, joining Reverend Sharpton in his demand, “Get Your Knees Off Our Necks.” Like any demonstration that is organized in response to a tragedy, it was both incredibly somber and innately uplifting. Joining together with George Floyd’s family, along with thousands of black and brown who live with the palpable fear of the same fate befalling them on a daily basis, was sobering, but joyful as we marched together through the streets of D.C. demanding change. There was a communal sense that our loud, organized, physical, visceral plea for lawmakers and representatives to actually do something to stop the endemic slaying of black people at the hands of the police could possibly light a fire under those representatives that would in fact result in hard, tangible change. 

When your body is in the line of fire, your voice ricochets off the actual skin of your oppressor.”

It always feels like that in the moment. The endorphins take over, the tears fall, hands are held, signs are raised, and demands are made that in the act of demonstrating or protesting, feels like this is the breaking point, the nationally recognized demonstration that will finally make everyone on the wrong side of history get it. But now, as we see mass shootings, race-based violence and murders continue to pop up on our news feeds on an almost weekly basis, even after the precedent-exploding conviction of Derek Chauvin, I only think about the time between getting an email about Sharpton’s march and planning the trip, and the time since returning from it. What was done during that time? How did anyone who attended that march, specifically so-called “white allies” make sure the message was heard and acted on? I certainly did not do enough. I am not the kind of cusp Gen Xer who decries social media and online organizing as “pointless.” It is not what I am used to, brought up by Jewish parents who lived through the radical protests of the 60’s and 70’s, and kept the spirit alive coming out of the counterculture killing Reagan 80’s. I was raised to believe change only comes when you show up. When your body is in the line of fire, your voice ricochets off the actual skin of your oppressor.

And this is the fundamental crossroads I found myself at as I drew upon memories of that march in August, and the countless demonstrations, rallies, marches and meetings I attended since November 2016. Fine, I don’t have the inherent skill for changing hearts and minds with a hashtag or Instagram post, and I feel the need to physically show my support for change. So, then, why was I not out with a megaphone and a sign during the Obama administration, especially when Republican lawmakers blocked his attempts at sweeping gun control after the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook? Why was I not spending that time on the front lines for what I believed was right, and only came out to stand with my brothers and sisters after things went completely beyond the pale?

You have to physically offer your presence, your body, and your protection in a space where black people are begging the powers that be to understand that their lives matter.”

We can always do more. We can make more calls. We can use the internet to organize physical events and make sure they are populated by as many bodies and voices as possible. And for white allies, we must understand two necessary truths. One: that despite being the leaders of a movement like BLM because they are the ones who understand and radiate the actual issue at hand, it is NOT the responsibility of oppressed groups and minorities to solve their own problems. We must recognize that while we would all love racist and gender-based power dynamics to fall away, that we must use them to our advantage while they are still proliferated. White allies have the power to make this change happen, not by giving the leaders of BLM their “support” but by actively demanding this change in their own daily lives, jobs and in any arena they enjoy an advantage to be heard that their black and brown peers do not. Second, and this is the most important: you have to be there. You have to physically offer your presence, your body, and your protection in a space where black people are begging the powers that be to understand that their lives matter. 

In late May 2020, during a large protest in the streets of Louisville after the senseless murder of Breonna Taylor by a police officer in her own home while she slept, police arrived to block off intersections and pathways to the protestors. According to Tim Druck, who photographed the scene, organizer Chanelle Helm used a bullhorn to instruct, “If you are going to be here, you should defend this space.” A long line of white protestors answered her call, forming a line with hands interlocked between black protestors and the police as the rally tried to march on. This was not a photo opp or a group of white allies flaunting their support for credibility. The fact of civil rights protesting is and has been since the 1960s, and since the time of American Slavery, is the same thing that we often don’t want to admit about the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement – that, right now, until we solve this problem, black lives don’t matter. They do not count for as much as white lives do in the eyes of those in power, who wish minorities harm, or who just inherently value their existence less. They are viewed as dispensable, evidenced every time we get a news alert that a police officer has killed a black person. The only way to change the minds of those in power, convince them that they must act now to make it legally binding and culturally necessary that black peoples’ lives matter, is for white people to put their lives in the same danger.

They showed the folly of the system in plain sight.”

That’s what those protestors did in Louisville. They put themselves in harm’s way. They were willing to sacrifice themselves to police violence to show just how much they believed their lives were worth exactly as much as their black counterparts. And they weren’t harmed. They showed the folly of the system in plain sight. That physically being there, and offering up your body the way black people do just by existing, lays bare the racism baked into our system and society, and makes our oppressors confront it. As we move forward, supporting Black Lives Matter, we must know that movement will not end. It may outlive many of us. And that is a sad truth to internalize. But it can not distract or discourage. We have to keep fighting. We have to be there.