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A Congress View: Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter as a movement and a phrase came onto the greater public scene when in 2013 when Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi decided to formalize a movement and create the online rallying marker of #BlackLivesMatter. Since then there have been over 30 million tweets using the hashtag and with each atrocity foisted on black Americans, the power and centralizing call is echoed again across social and traditional media.

But congress is another story. Since 2009 I’ve collected and maintained each official e-newsletter sent by sitting representatives and senators to constituents. The front facing part of this project is maintained at DCinbox.com, and as a part of the maintenance backend I try to read 5–10 of these e-newsletters each day. On May 27, 2020 I was a surprised when I read the following passage from Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL),

“Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and lost jobs, the violent death of George Floyd, another unarmed black man, and continued acts of racism strike at our hearts and fuel rightful outrage. Why does this continue to happen in America? Murderers must be held accountable. Hate crimes must be prosecuted. All of us must speak up, demand justice and end injustices in our own communities. We are better than this. Black lives matter.”

Most members of congress try to shy away from things that might alienate constituents, and in our polarized, outrage-fueled times, even well meaning sentiments like Black Lives Matter can seem off limits for elected officials. I knew I hadn’t come across the term before in my daily casual sampling, but I did not know how frequently this phrase has been used.

From over 89,000 messages sent since 2013 only 18 members of congress have used the term. To contextualize that, 12 have sent messages containing “blue lives matter”, and six have mentioned Colin Kaepernick. Who is sending these sorts of messages, what are they saying?

The first Black Lives Matter came from Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), heralding that Vermont had proclaimed a Black Lives Matter Day. Then came Jim Cooper (D-TN) discussing a BLM Forum in his district. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) followed lamenting Freddie Gray’s unjustified and senseless murder. Congressman Al Green (D-TX) wrote about the late Judge Frank M. Johnson as a man who knew and lived Black Lives Matter in his decisions during the civil rights era. In 2016 Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) suggested that if the armed militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were members of the Black Lives Matter movement, government and public responses would likely be very different. Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) discussed a forum attended by BLM members and others to discuss gun violence. Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) echoed Obamas argument for the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter and recognizing the specific vulnerabilities of the African American community, as part of a greater strategy of racial peace.

Out of 18 mentions, 16 came from democrats. Republican legislator Congressman Louie Gohmert (TX) wrote to constituents about linkages between BLM and anti-Israel Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movements. And the passage from Republican Congressman Diane Black (TN) is below

There were 12 other messages on Blue Lives Matter, all from Republicans. Both blue and black lives matter are infrequent topics in official e-newsletters, but the partisanship of authors should leave few questions as to which party is willing to connect with constituents over these hard topics.

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Lindsey Cormack

I am an associate professor of political science and run www.dcinbox.com. I teach at Stevens Institute of Technology and reside on the Upper East Side