*A version of this essay originally appeared on Public Seminar, as part of its Race/isms Book Forum on The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea by Christopher Lebron.
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”—Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977
One day after Christmas, in 2015, 55-year-old Bettie Jones was likely roused from sleep in the wee hours of the morning as an argument between her neighbors—19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier and his father, Antonio LeGrier—erupted. Quintonio was a college student home for the holidays. His father had just called for police assistance to calm the confrontation. Jones, the LeGrier’s downstairs neighbor, reluctantly agreed to let the police officers into the West Garfield Park apartment building and directed them upstairs when they arrived. Quintonio was reportedly coming down the stairs with a metal baseball bat when police approached. In the skirmish, police officers unloaded six bullets into Quintonio’s chest, buttocks, shoulder, arm, back, and side. Jones was struck once in the chest, piercing her heart.
In The Making of Black Lives Matter, Christopher J. LeBron encourages us to situate the deaths of Black Americans like LeGrier and Jones in a larger context. Through a synthesis of Anna Julia Cooper’s and Audre Lorde’s work, LeBron frames the activism of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—co-founders of the Black Lives Matter Network—as a part of a movement that is “trying to do more than correct for a deep history over the course of which blacks generally have been oppressed… the movement is also trying to morally and practically redirect a present-day social regime in which Blackness is not only oppressed as a category but is also used to obscure the myriad disadvantages blackness enhances, augments, makes more severe.”
To highlight these multitudinous oppressions that materialize across race and gender backgrounds, LeBron focuses on the cases of Eleanor Bumpurs and Sandra Bland, two cisgender Black women who, in addition to meeting their demise after unnecessary interactions with police authorities, were working class and disabled. And, as LeBron elucidates, Black Lives Matter, like the long historical arc of righteous justice work preceding it, works to ensure that all Black lives matter, even those least visible and emphatically remanded to the margins of our collective memories.
Bettie Jones was killed by “accident.” Jones was a church-going woman whose daughter told police that she “didn’t deserve” to die. Her pastor referred to her as “innocent.” This language is often used in reference to Black Americans who remain posthumously deemed non-criminal, their lives out of step with the narratives of deviance often used to justify the extrajudical killings of Black people.
But Jones’ death doesn’t conform to LeBron’s central thesis that Black women are also killed under the present social regime because of their particular intersections of race and gender alone. Rather, for Jones, it was race, space, and place; it was her status as a Black woman living in West Garfield Park—a low-income, high unemployment, densely populated neighborhood in Chicago that is hyper-surveilled by police but often hidden from investment, development, and redistributive practices that typically make their way to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood and the North Side.
The geopolitics of Jones’ neighborhood intersected with the conditions of the altercation between police and the LeGriers. And while her race and gender are critically imperative in understanding how she found herself standing in her doorway at around 4:30 am just hours after Christmas Day, they do not tell the full story of her death. Nor do they shine light on the ways that Black Lives Matter, in concert with the larger collection of organizations under the Movement for Black Lives umbrella, works to make Jones’ experience with the Chicago Police Department more recognizable as a systemic concern.
Blackness is not the only analytic that operates to obscure the myriad oppressions experienced by afro-descendant and Black Diasporic people. Islan Nettles was a 21-year-old woman who was brutally beaten just after midnight on August 17, 2013 on a Harlem street by a cisgender Black man who became angry with her after finding out she was transgender. This raging act of transphobic and misogynoiristic violence is emblematic of a larger system which renders invisible the harms done to Black transgender women, women whose life expectancy is on average 35 years.
What white cisgender capitalist heteropatriarchal systems of control, power and privilege render invisible, Black Lives Matter works to bring to the fore. While this work necessarily includes special attention to the intersections of race and gender, it is equally concerned with the ways that sexuality, ability, class, education, incarceration status, and health access regulate the quality, duration, and vitality of Black people’s lives. That is, all Black people lives. This movement is the manifestation of resistance against the “manifold and simultaneous oppressions” the Combahee River Collective decries.
And in this Black queer feminist future of present, gender is non-binary, sexuality is not just about intimate coupling but about a set of political-sexual practices and beliefs, class critique is rooted in anti-capitalist praxis, and justice requires dismantling institutions rather than reforming them.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, historian and long-time activist Barbara Ransby facetiously opens by asking: “Why has this generation of black activists failed to produce a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or a Malcolm X—a charismatic, messiah-like figure who can lead a major movement?” To which she answers, “The answer is a choice, not a deficiency.” Her candid revelation is simple but highlights the most prescient facet of this Black Lives Matter Movement: young Black people are making a choice.
Young people are making a choice to reimagine the roles of gender and sexuality as categories and theoretical bases for social organizing and personal embodiment. They are re- and dis-engaging with and from long-held narratives about Black leadership, collective action, and the methods we use to resist and struggle against exploitative systems of oppression.
Young Black people are making a choice to not only focus on the intersections of race and gender but on the multiple, interlocking, and generative ways that their complex situatedness informs a vast social and political system. This shift is “making Black Lives Matter,” all of them, at once.permission.