Black Lives Matter Doesn’t Need To Be Polite — It Needs Us To Remember

The problem with Black Lives Matter, its detractors will tell you, is that its activists are “disrespectful.” Critics have described BLM’s tactics as “childish and off-putting”; some have accused activists of showboating for personal gain; others have disparaged the personal appearances of activists and the “guys with sagging pants” at BLM rallies. BLM should be ignored, critics argue, until their participants can be “appropriate.” This is respectability politics. This is the same logic that tells us that women would be raped less if they didn’t dress so provocatively, that Black men would have less trouble with cops if they didn’t act like criminals. If BLM activists can’t act with decorum, these critics argue, the whole movement is reduced to shameful, ineffective, and even counterproductive rabble-rousing.

None of these claims are true. The biggest challenge faced by BLM activists is not one of decorum. The real challenge for BLM is that society’s default response to systemic trauma is amnesia, a void of memory filled by the false narrative that we live in a post-racial society. The real challenge is that, when faced with the reality of anti-Black racism, America always forgets.

It doesn’t matter whether BLM is polite. It matters that BLM finally makes us remember.

The Social Amnesia Of Systemic Trauma

In her book, Trauma and Recovery, psychiatrist Judith Herman describes the history of research on post-traumatic stress disorder and shows that society’s response to widespread trauma is always to forget. In the 1890s, for example, Sigmund Freud discovered that “hysteria” was a psychological response to women’s experiences of sexual abuse and violence in childhood. “Hysteria” was so widespread, however, that Freud’s findings had to implicate extraordinary numbers of men in the rampant sexual assault of women and children across all social classes. At the time, this conclusion was considered too unbelievable to be true. The scientific community refused to accept the strongest evidence ever produced of the violence that women regularly face at the hands of their most intimate relations. Freud’s discovery was ultimately suppressed, leading him to propose the alternate theories of psychoanalysis as an explanation.

Thirty years later, psychological trauma responses were “rediscovered” as soldiers returned from World War I with “shell shock.” Yet public acknowledgement of the systemic violence of military action was again stymied by a lack of will. The provision of lengthy psychological treatment, which traumatized veterans needed, would have meant acknowledging the true horrors of war long after public enthusiasm for those wars had ended. Disinclined to endorse such a message, the army standardized hypnosis and sodium amytal injections as short-term treatments for PTSD, justifying the rapid return of traumatized soldiers to duty and reducing “shell shock” to an afterthought in the public imagination of war.

These histories reveal that sustainable responses to systemic violence will fail without the support of political movements in support of its victims. Herman writes:

“The study of war trauma becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the sacrifice of young men in war. The study of trauma in sexual and domestic life becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the subordination of women and children.”

Similarly, the study of systemic violence against Black bodies in the United States will only be effective in a context that challenges anti-Black racism and white privilege.

Anti-violence movements, therefore, cannot be concerned with maintaining respectability. They are, by their nature, exercises in the violation of social privilege. In the words of BLM activists Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, “We honor Black lives lost by doing the unthinkable, the unapologetic, and the unrespectable.”

Social Movements Create Social Memory

Social movements have periodically disrupted the amnesia of anti-Black racism throughout U.S. history. In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and shot, bound with barbed wire, and thrown into Tallahatchie River in retaliation for flirting with a white woman. Till’s mother, grieving and indignant, insisted on an open casket funeral. Photographs of Till’s mutilated body circulated widely. Till is remembered as a martyr today not only because of the publicity surrounding his death, but because his death coincided with the public beginnings the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks was arrested on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, four months later, and civil rights activists publicly championed for victims like Till for more than a decade afterwards.

Nearly forty years later, in 1991, Rodney King became a household name after four Los Angeles police officers were filmed pulling him from his car and beating him, leaving him with multiple skull fractures and damage to several internal organs. King’s tragedy is seared into American memory, however, not because of the violence caught on film, but by the massive riots in Los Angeles that followed the 1992 acquittal of the officers who attacked him. After the judicial system failed to recognize the severity of the violence that King and other Black residents of Los Angeles had suffered — and had been suffering — the public response was immediate. A state of emergency was declared in the city less than six hours after the verdict was announced.

By today’s standards, the Civil Rights Movement and the Los Angeles riots arguably represent the highest highs and the lowest lows of the “respectability” of public responses to anti-Black racism in the United States. Yet, despite significant differences between them, there remains considerable overlap. Both turned an unwavering lens on systemic racism, which exists within and beyond individual acts of violence, and both achieved lasting effects. The Civil Rights Movement bore witness to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the L.A. riots ultimately lead to the publication of the Christopher Commission Report, which provided some of the earliest institutional documentation of systemic and violent racism in American police forces. Both actions cemented the names of the victims that inspired them in our nation’s historical memory.

The BLM movement has been singularly instrumental in fostering public acknowledgement of violent anti-Black racism through collective remembrance of its victims. One example of this work is the the hashtag #sayhername, which was inspired by the July 2015 death of Sandra Bland in police custody in Waller County, Texas. That same summer, Seattle BLM activists cited Bernie Sanders’ refusal to acknowledge the #sayhername campaign in his comments at the 2015 Netroots Nation convention as motivation for their infamous disruption of his public rally in Seattle’s Westlake neighborhood. Recently, at a press conference held by the family of Alton Sterling, a Baton Rouge man shot by police at point blank range, one of Sterling’s relatives wore a shirt bearing the name and portrait of Trayvon Martin. This unwavering refusal to tolerate forgetting is BLM’s constant refrain.

Change Is Uncomfortable

Accusations of incivility were as common in the Civil Rights era as they are today. Martin Luther King’s critics accused him of “inciting hatred and violence” with his public demonstrations, even as they voiced support for the Civil Rights Movement that he led. Gallup polls conducted throughout the 1960s reveal a deep ambivalence about Dr. King as a leader, with 25% to 44% of the general public reporting “highly unfavorable” views. In June 2016, the Pew Research Center released the results of a public opinion poll on the BLM movement with shockingly similar results. Though the movement has garnered much public support, animosity towards BLM remains prevalent, with 28% of white adults voicing opposition. Thankfully, as history has shown, it doesn’t matter whether BLM’s messages are pleasing to white ears; it only matters that they are heard at all.

The discomfort BLM generates is the result of new awareness that the socially powerful among us also do violent things. If anything, the attacks on BLM’s “respectability” are the growing pains of a better, more equal society. They are a measure of how effectively activists have interrupted white life and forced the disinterested to listen.


Lead image: flickr/Johnny Silvercloud

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