On December 21 last year, Juventino Castro, an off-duty police officer, was doing routine patrols as a part-time security guard around a local strip mall that had hired him. The mall had experienced a series of burglaries, so they wanted Castro to help secure the property after dark.
That night, he encountered Jordan Baker around the back side of the shopping center. Baker, wearing a hoodie, was confronted by Castro about why he was there. According to Castro (there were no other witnesses), he interrogated Baker because he matched the description of someone who previously had burglarized the stores. He says there was a physical altercation and a foot chase, followed by Baker turning, reaching into his waistband and charging Castro.
Castro shot Baker, who died. Baker was unarmed. Castro had no injuries.
When brought up before a grand jury, the case was deemed not to have sufficient evidence to go to trial by jury, which means that, like other officers before him, Castro would go free without ever standing trial before a jury of his peers.
Jordan Baker left behind a son, Jordan Baker, Jr. He was a college student and worked part time to support his family.
Baker’s loved ones and the community around him continued the rallying cry for justice like those who called for the same after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and scores of others. The responses have been largely peaceful, amplifying messages like “Hands, up, don’t shoot,” and “Black lives matter.” But despite these nonviolent responses to such unnecessary losses of life, some (in my experience, all white) people raise objections.
Rather than “Black lives matter,” they argue, we should say “All lives matter.” So why is this inappropriate? There are a number of reasons, actually.
First, these cries are direct responses to the loss of black lives. It’s a nonviolent corporate response to power that was wielded violently. It’s a response to a judicial system that historically incarcerates black men at a rate staggeringly higher than their white counterparts, for the same crimes. It’s a response of a community conditioned to fear the very ones sworn to protect them. Such grief, despair and helplessness demands a response from within us. WE MATTER is a call to be recognized, valued and cared for.
Second, there is no implication in the phrase “Black lives matter” that they matter any more than any other lives. Rather, it’s a response to a societal phenomenon that seems, if without words, to say those black lives matter less. It’s a call to nonviolent resistance, in the spirit of King, Gandhi, and even Jesus.
Third, the co-opting of “Black lives matter” into “All lives matter” touches a deep historical nerve, of which those with racial privilege may not be aware. But as the old saying goes, ignorance is no excuse. Granted, the practice of slavery by means of force is no longer legal in our culture, but it has not stopped the dominant culture from taking valuable contributions to American society and co-opting it, adapting it and quite often profiting greatly from it. From science and literature to the arts and entertainment, the pattern is well established.
So it’s understandable if African-Americans bristle at the perhaps well-intended desire of others to change their call for equality and justice into something broader, and therefore, absent of it’s particular potency for the situation at hand.
Rather than resisting or trying to change such cries, there is an opportunity for those of us in historically privileged and powerful positions in the culture to listen, learn and better understand the longing behind the words. The responsibility is on us to help make room for such voices, to help amplify them and to use what power and privilege we have to exact the kind of change that, ultimately would lead to a society in which chants as “Black lives matter” would no longer be necessary.