A Black Lives Matter Turns 10 event-goer waves a Juneteenth flag near Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park on July 15, 2023. (Farajii Muhammad/AfroLA)

Black Lives Matter turned 10 years old, and we all need to celebrate

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There is an old saying, “You can’t stop an idea whose time has come.” Black Lives Matter is, in part, the answer to our collective prayers.

There would be no Black Lives Matter (BLM) if the time we are living in didn’t call for the humanity of Black people to be affirmed. The Supreme Court’s conservative bloc fought (and won) to end affirmative action as we knew it. Florida’s lawmakers continue their war on “wokeness” with the distortion and removal of Black history from the state’s schools.  Black people continue to be threatened by those hellbent on keeping Blacks oppressed. This is the dual existence of my people in today’s America. 

At BLM’s 10-year celebration July 15, hundreds gathered in Leimert Park. Sybrina Fulton, mother of slain teen Trayvon Martin, was one of the first speakers to take the stage. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter first appeared following the acquittal of Martin’s killer in 2013.

Sybrina Fulton, mother of slain Black teen Trayvon Martin, was a featured speaker at the 10-year anniversary celebration of Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles. (Farajii Muhammad/AfroLA)

“We decided that we want to fight for our children. Our children have the right to walk in peace without being followed, chased, profiled or murdered,” said Fulton, before shouts of ‘Black lives still matter’ rang out from the crowd. “If I didn’t give up, and I lost my 17-year-old son, I’m not going to let you give up and you haven’t lost anyone,” continued  Fulton. As I looked into the faces in the audience, I could tell her words struck a chord with a community who have experienced its share of both violence and loss. 

But Fulton, along with the other guests, kept the spirit high and the message balanced between personal lessons learned and emphasizing a call to action. 

A Black man raises his hand in the air while he speaks into the microphone in his other hand. An American Sign Language interpreter signs his speech near him on stage.
Activist Cornel West addresses a crowd in Leimert Park during the 10-year anniversary celebration of Black Lives Matter on July 15, 2023. (Farajii Muhammad/AfroLA)

Yazmine Monet-Watkins, co-chair of the arts and culture committee for Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, said she believes the movement still resonates and should be celebrated. “I’ve seen the ways that we are tangibly changing our community,” said Monet-Watkins. “It’s exciting that we get to celebrate—at least for a moment—10 years of organizing and moving toward our collective liberation.” 

It’s a liberation that has yet to be realized, especially as we continue to see cases of police brutality go unchecked and officers go unpunished. The problems BLM is addressing as an organization—and a movement—are long-standing, systemic and aren’t bound by geography. So, they won’t be solved overnight. 

In my hometown Baltimore, where nearly 60% of residents are Black, the clarion call from BLM didn’t seem to come until the 2015 killing of Freddie Gray. Following Gray’s death in police custody, the city exploded. There was much speculation about what happened to Gray, but one thing was for sure: Gray entered a police van, handcuffed and alive, and came out in a body bag. Much like the period following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, protests ensued. The city was palpably tense as residents and police confronted each daily.

The day of Gray’s funeral, April 27, riots broke out on North Avenue in West Baltimore—not far from Gray’s home. Businesses were looted, fires were set and citizens assaulted police with bottles, bricks and other debris. As word spread about the uproar, leaders from faith communities, including my own Nation of Islam, and community organizations showed up. Our plan was to serve as a protective buffer for the community from the police and to eliminate more lives being taken if the police engaged aggressively. 

The author captured this photo on his cell phone during a clash between Black community members and Baltimore police on April 27, 2015. (Farajii Muhammad/AfroLA)

That day was a clear sign of how badly the relationship between police and community had eroded. We wondered how Baltimore would get through that moment. The future of the city felt uncertain. A prevailing narrative around the country was that Baltimoreans “rebelled” by refusing to remain silent about the death of one of our own. Some went so far as to reframe the events of that day as an “uprising.”  But, I remember thinking that true resistance should come in the form of organized action. 

I was shocked to learn there was no established Black Lives Matter local chapter in Baltimore at the time. (BLM Baltimore appeared on social media in November 2015.) I was disappointed we didn’t have a well-known platform from which we could do this work. I considered starting a local chapter myself, but I never did. But, I became more involved in serving as a liaison between the community and the police, consulting young leaders about next steps in the movement for Black lives. As I reflect now, as we celebrate 10 years of Black Lives Matter, I wonder where Baltimore might have been had I acted in the moment.

It’s not enough to expect others to see or to realize our humanity; that is for us to see.

If you see Black Lives Matter—a national group with a decentralized network of local chapters—as an organization that only addresses policing then you’re missing the point of their work. BLM has evolved to help shape the conversation around police brutality being the outcome—and the cause—of an unjust policing system.You miss how BLM’s direct action strategy is designed to disrupt the implementation of policies that create an environment for Black lives to be taken.

Without considering these factors, it becomes much easier to discount the mind, heart and intention of BLM’s founders, to diminish its history-driven mission and disregard its life-saving efforts. It’s easy to do that, if you don’t know the time and what must be done. Renowned professor and 2024 presidential candidate, Cornel West, addressed this disregard in his remarks to the Leimert Park crowd gathered to celebrate 10 years of Black Lives Matter. 

“Let us not be deceived. There has never been a person who has been so chronically hated. For 400 years, every day, every week, every month…that’s what all those precious folks, i.e. victims of police brutality, are talking about in terms of how they speak to us from the graves,” said West. 

We have been conditioned to believe that America has taken our humanity seriously. Yet, even in 2023, our rights as citizens that matter are still up for debate. More than half of America’s Black population—56%—live in Southern states, according to the latest census estimates. Some of these formerly Confederate states, like Texas, Florida and Georgia, have historically denied us the rights we are owed and the acknowledgement that we deserve from them. 

Two Black women stand near one another in conversation.
Melina Abdullah, grassroots director of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, speaks with former Black Panther Party leader and activist Elaine Brown at the BLM Turns 10 event in Leimert Park on July 15, 2023. (Farajii Muhammad/AfroLA)

I truly believe that the burden of change is on us. Many people don’t want to see a movement like Black Lives Matter exist because it forces the world to admit what it has ignored.  BLM’s Grassroots Director Melina Abdullah, who also spoke at the event, said that the organization was no longer accepted by the mainstream after the so-called racial reckoning of 2020. Abdullah emphasized that the organization is “back to not being liked” by the masses, and that community support is vital.Given our present social conditions, we as Black Americans shouldn’t have to be cajoled and persuaded to seek liberation.  

In his song Manilla, artist Lupe Fiasco raps, “You can accomplish anything if you survive Blackness.” 

But, a key to survival is action. Activist Elaine Brown, once a member of the Black Panther Party implored the crowd to act. “Do you wanna talk shit, or do shit?” Brown condemned people who only supported BLM when it was en vogue, who sported a black box on Instagram and showed up to a protest or two. 

“Words are beautiful, but action is supreme,” said Brown, in a nod to national Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (who quoted the original speaker, Che Guevara). Our existence is not by happenstance. BLM is not a coincidence. After 10 years, it’s time we should take action and celebrate Black Lives Matter as an important advocate for our lives and daily survival.

Editor’s note: Farajii Muhammad contributes to AfroLA as a freelance journalist, but this is a personal essay published under AfroLA’s community contributor guidelines.

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