A major, ongoing 2015 news story in the United States was the growing stature and centrality of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The social movement began with a social media hashtag in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin. In the final days of 2014 after unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Seventh-day Adventist leaders and lay members spoke out. In 2015, the movement crescendoed with unrest in Baltimore and the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s inroads into the 2016 presidential election cycle.
The website BlackLivesMatter.com describes the movement as a “chapter-based national organization working for the validity of Black life.” The movement seeks to expand America’s conversation about state violence “to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.”
The killing of black Americans by (predominantly) white police officers with little or no repercussions for excessive use of force against black citizens has been at the heart of the movement, but other issues have played a part: poverty, mass incarceration, and a culture that perpetually treats whiteness as normative and of higher value are among the societal problems the movement works to end.
In December of 2014, Adventist students at Oakwood University and Andrews University marched and held demonstrations in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Oakwood University President Dr. Leslie Pollard issued a statement and tweeted pictures from Oakwood’s events.
Adventists from the Allegheny West Conference met at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio for a day of prayer led by Pastor John T. Boston II of the Central Seventh-day Adventist Church and Allegheny West pastors from Columbus. Evangelist/Pastor Marquis Johns of the Metropolitan Adventist Church in Hyattsville, Maryland was a guest speaker at the event.
North American Division President Daniel R. Jackson issued a call for justice after the death of Trayvon Martin, and a statement embracing the right to speak out and call for change after the non-indictments of the officers responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Jackson said in the latter statement,
“It is time for our society to engage in open, honest, civil, and productive conversation about the rights and equality of every member of our community. We pray that the tragedy of these two deaths will bring about much needed change and address the pain that many ethnic groups are facing in this country. We pray that awareness will lead to a two-way conversation that will lead to healing. We pray that those on either side of this conversation will speak with peace, love, and grace. We pray for the day when all of God’s children treat each other without suspicion, bias, and hatred.”
Early in 2015, the Allegheny East Conference of Seventh-day Adventists held a series of recorded conversations asking the question of whether Regional Conferences still matter. The events followed a sermon by Pastor Dwight K. Nelson on MLK weekend, which generated a petition aimed at ending conferences presumably drawn up along racial lines. Benjamin Baker participated in one of the Allegheny East video conversations, discussing the history of Adventist race relations.
As the 2016 presidential race heated up this year, the Black LIves Matter movement became a flashpoint in the discourse on both sides of the political aisle.
Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley angered many by using the phrase “all lives matter” while discussing police violence against African Americans with liberal demonstrators. O’Malley apologized soon thereafter, saying “I did not mean to be insensitive in any way or communicate that I did not understand the tremendous passion, commitment and feeling and depth of feeling that all of us should be attaching to this issue."
Since then, “all lives matter” has become a response that has been thrown back at the Black Lives Matter Movement, particularly by supporters of Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Dr. Ben Carson, the one Seventh-day Adventist to have become a household name in 2015, has been critical of the Black Lives Matter Movement, despite his being the only black candidate for president in the 2016 election. Dr. Carson wrote an op-ed published in USA Today, in which he suggested that the movement is misguided in focusing on police violence.
Instead, Carson blamed America’s public schools, its entertainment industry, the U.S. Government’s “War on Poverty,” social safety programs promoted by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party’s ignoring black people as the reasons for the problems black Americans face.
Carson said that pitting the idea that black lives matter against the idea that all lives matter is an example of political correctness gone amok. Speaking to Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, Carson said “Of course all lives matter, and all lives includes black lives.”
This week, a cartoon circulated on social media that demonstrated the problem inherent in the retort all lives matter.
“Well, I believe all lives matter,” said one character to the other. “We should be equally concerned at all times about everything.” In the next frame, that character is seen pouring water onto a house that is fine while the house next to it is engulfed in flame. “All houses matter,” the character exclaims.
With everyone from President Obama to Dr. Carson to the president of the North American Division weighing in, #BlackLivesMatter has been a key story this year, and to quote the holiday song, it doesn’t show signs of stopping.
Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
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