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The Embodied And The Voiced

What it means to listen to the voices of mothers from Black Lives Matter

Two years after Ferguson, a grassroots Black Lives Matter movement has raised the profile of their cause high enough that both major parties addressed it on the national convention stage. This is a victory in itself, even if the GOP’s response was “all lives matter.” Getting stage time at the Democratic National Convention, at least, was a hopeful sign that the movement will outlive this cycle to have real political impact in the next administration.

“I am an unwilling participant in this movement,” said Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, onstage at the DNC. She was standing with other Mothers of the Movement, a group of women aligned with Black Lives Matter whose children have been killed. “I would not have signed up for this. None of us would have. But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven. And for my other son, Jahvaris, who is still here on earth.”

The women of Mothers of the Movement in attendance were Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland; Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley, mother of Hadiya Pendleton; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton; Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown; and Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant. When these women’s children were stolen, they left nothing so clean as an absence. Carrying the memory of their children in the movement for black lives means that these women can’t simply remember their children as they were in life, but must repeatedly return to their deaths. They are forced to bear witness to injustice.

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“What a blessing tonight to be standing here,” Geneva Reed-Veal said, “so that Sandy can still speak through her mama.” What a painful blessing, to give voice to the unjustly dead. It was good and right to hear from these black women, that they were allowed to speak in a place where they could be heard. Whether you saw their presence at the DNC as powerful or cynically manipulative depends on how legitimate you think the cause of Black Lives Matter is, and also how how strong you find the connection between its concerns and the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, was notably absent from the stage, for instance, because she does not believe electing Clinton has much to do with valuing black lives.

I respect Rice’s decision, just as I respect the decision of the mothers who did choose to go to the DNC. Black people in this country, especially black women, do not often have the luxury of choosing the platform on which to make their stand. They often must simply stand wherever their voices will carry the furthest.

But it was hard to ignore the fact that of the three mothers who were chosen to speak, only one — Reed-Veal — had lost her child at the hands of the police. And even Sandra Bland’s death was as at a level of a remove and responsibility; she was found dead in her jail cell after an unwarranted traffic stop. The choice of these particular stories by those organizing the event cannot possibly have been a coincidence. This is not to say that these stories are unimportant or the deaths any less tragic. But even in a moment dedicated to black life, black death was seasoned for white palates, curated for white sensibilities.

Even during a section of the convention addressed to the concerns of Black Lives Matter, the issue that galvanized the movement — unpunished and unjustified police killings — was muted. The Mothers of the Movement were preceded by speeches from law enforcement representatives, who gave their own account of the state of policing and black lives. Former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. plainly said “an attack on a police officer is an attack on our entire society,” and Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay referred to the killings of police officers as “assassination.” The closest either got to acknowledging the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement was birthed out of police officers’ disproportionate killing of black people (and lack of punishment for this) was when McLay made a brief reference to “controversial officer-involved shootings.”

Nobody said anything as blunt as “police killings” or “police brutality.” Nobody said anything as straightforward as “a police officer shot a black person,” much less “a police officer killed my child.” The death of black people was always in the passive voice.

It might seem like quibbling over semantics, but if what is happening is not properly named, then we will form solutions that do not confront reality. And this, in fact, is what happened onstage. The problem with police killings was repeatedly identified as a two-way loss of trust between police officers and the communities they police — a broken relationship, a frayed bond.

Of course, there was nothing whole to be broken in the first place; the relationship between police officers and black people has always been adversarial and predatory. Why should black people trust an unaccountable system that can so casually destroy them? This question is why it was cruelly appropriate that the day after the Mothers of the Movement spoke, all remaining charges against the officers charged for Freddie Gray’s death were dropped. Gray’s death was ruled a homicide, the system decided, yet no officer was responsible for his death.

It seems obvious that the prerequisite for trust between communities is for police officers to not wrongfully brutalize and kill citizens, and for police officers to be held accountable when they do. But the failure to find any individual police officer guilty in Gray’s death is also an indictment of the justice system itself. If no person killed Gray, then it was the system that killed him. It was the system that chased him down arbitrarily. It was the system that roughly detained him and packed him haphazardly in the back of the van. It was the system that snapped his neck, the system that callously ignored his cries for help.

It was the system that shot Oscar Grant in the back in Oakland, the system that strangled Eric Garner in Staten Island, the system that riddled Dontre Hamilton’s body with bullets in Wisconsin.

The truth speaks in an imperative voice. It asks something of us. Our American system of justice has brutalized and killed these men and women. It is not enough to hear the voices of these mothers; we must heed them. It is not enough for us to say their children’s names; we must act in them. For my part, I’ve decided that to find any redemption, the whole system must be torn down, brick and mortar and chain.