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The Malleable Memory Of Darren Seals

Honor Seals in death by telling the truth about what he believed while he was alive

Darren Seals was found shot and burned in the charred remains of a car on Tuesday morning. Seals had been among the first activists to rally in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown. He held Brown’s mother in his arms after the grand jury ruled not to indict Darren Wilson, and he continued to be involved in anti–police brutality organizing until his death. Because of his connection with the catalyst of the movement, news stories about his death have implied that Seals was part of Black Lives Matter or Campaign Zero, an activist group aimed at ending police killings. This is not true.

Ferguson was the launching pad for a new national movement, and Seals was part of a group of local activists who saw the burn marks. Michael Brown and the city he was from have both been turned into symbols, emblematic of a nationwide problem. But to Hands Up Don’t Shoot (HUDS), the organizing group Seals was a member of, becoming a symbol also meant that Ferguson had become a lucrative abstraction. HUDS came to believe that their cause had been co-opted by outsiders, publicity hounds, and white liberals, all of whom diverted resources and attention from Ferguson itself. The group felt that more money should be used for building a permanent, durable grassroots base on the ground, rather than being spread around to national organizations.

It would be leaving the story incomplete to not mention Seals’s other critique of Black Lives Matter: He decried them for, in his view, decentering the particular problems of straight black men in favor of emphasizing an agenda focused on women and people in the LGBTQ community. The “guiding principles” page for Black Lives Matter, for example, has sections addressing female and LGBTQ black people, but nothing about straight, cis black men. To Seals, this was needlessly divisive — he claimed that the Ferguson protests had no division by gender identity or sexual orientation — but also a sign that the national movement only cared about men like him when they were dead.

All of this led Seals to publicly criticize and disassociate himself from the major groups that have grown out of the aftermath of Brown’s death.

Despite this, Seals has now been woven into a narrative that connects him with causes he disavowed, and which frames as his allies people he considered to be adversaries. That he is being hammered into a symbol in death for causes he did not represent in life is cruelly ironic, but it isn’t unexpected. Mainstream media outlets often can’t be bothered to learn the intricacies of movements; this is why black people who speak out against racism are perpetually cast as being part of the Black Lives Matter movement, even when they have little or nothing to do with the organization.

And none of this is new, of course. We’re watching the real-time creation of historical memory here, and this is how historical memory often works — it sands down nuance, papering over differences and disagreements in favor of straightforward narratives. There were acrimonious fights within the Civil Rights Movement over both low-level tactics and high-level goals, as well as over the movement itself. Organizers and activists fought about who was being centered, who was being served, and who was leading the way. But today, those organizers are often spoken about in hagiographic, monolithic, oversimplified terms, the fissures and factions forgotten.

These fights sometimes got personal, too, as activists wrestled with authenticity and proximity to power — calling each other sellouts or worse. Seals’s criticism that elements of Black Lives Matter are tainted because they receive funding from white liberal groups sounds a lot like Malcolm X’s critique of the Civil Rights Movement for the same thing. The same goes for Ella Baker’s criticism of being led by a highly visible spokesperson.

I reference these historical precedents not to create false parallels or to imply that Seals was right or wrong, but to point out that these kinds of disputes often happen in social-justice movements. The only difference these days, maybe, is the way that social media makes them so public. Internal conflict has always been endemic to crusades; now we just find out about it all, and we find out in real time. The movement for black lives isn’t aided by erasing criticism and flaws, and it isn’t strengthened by giving an impression of false unity. The way to honor Seals in death is to make sure that we tell the truth about what he believed while he was alive.