It’s been two years since the killing of an 18-year-old unarmed African-American teen named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., who was Gunned down by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. The killing sparked two weeks of protest from unarmed Black Lives Matter demonstrators carrying signs proclaiming, "I am Mike Brown" and "Hands up, don’t shoot."
They faced off against a militarized force of Ferguson police using armored vehicles and rooftop snipers. It was a visual demonstration—as clear as when Birmingham, Ala., Police Chief Bull Connor turned German shepherds and water hoses on African-American schoolchildren in 1963—of how far a white supremacist police structure would be willing to protect a social hierarchy that made black bodies expendable, their deaths explainable and the protests of the black community discountable.
But Ferguson was also a pivot point for Black Lives Matter, a movement that started as a hashtag, created three years prior by three black women, two of whom are queer: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi. Ferguson would prove to be the catalyst for Black Lives Matter moving from being a #hashtag movement to a tangible one in the streets of America. And as it has matured, the potential for it to become the most powerful mass movement for racial justice in the 21st century is real.
Watching Black Lives Matter activists in Ferguson, I knew that there would be blowback, particularly from the white community, over this direct confrontation of white police power. After all, when Black Lives Matter was formed after the acquittal of non-police officer George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2011, one of the initial reactions of many in white America was that "All lives matter."
But a curious thing happened in the two years after Ferguson. More white, Asian and Latino allies began understanding, translating to their own communities and fighting alongside African Americans behind the Black Lives Matter banner. Instead of embracing intentional ignorance over the meaning of Black Lives Matter, multiracial allies owned the work of opening up a dialogue over systemic police brutality, including white bodies being killed by police lethal use of force.
Over the past two years, it’s become clear that one of the genius moves by founders Garza, Tometi and Cullors was to make Black Lives Matter a grassroots, nonhierarchal and inclusive movement. Traditionally, black racial-justice movements have been primarily patriarchal and top-down—from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund as it was led by Thurgood Marshall to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King Jr., to the Black Panthers led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale—while hundreds of others, black women, gays and lesbians, have usually stayed in the background.
By rejecting that patriarchal model and giving power to grassroots chapters versus a main corporate headquarters, Black Lives Matter empowered women like Marissa Johnson, a Black Lives Matter activist from Seattle, to disrupt a Bernie Sanders campaign stop on the one-year anniversary of the death of Mike Brown. Her demands? That Sanders, who had, to date, couched all of his policies in economic terms, both acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement and create policy surrounding systemic racism.
Days later, Sanders hired a Black Lives Matter activist and put together a policy paper on police brutality. That one act, along with Black Lives Matter protests throughout the Democratic presidential nomination process—such as when protesters confronted the eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton—resulted in talk about systemic racism and police brutality becoming part of the 2016 presidential campaign on the Democratic side.
But Ferguson also taught us something else that should be a warning shot for those who support the Black Lives Matter movement. Since Black Lives Matter is one that intentionally goes without a leader, there are people who wish to fill the void. African-American racial-justice organizations have always been destroyed through the targeting of so-called leaders who, once neutralized, have the effect of making the organization impotent.
Thus, more importantly, Black Lives Matter is successful because it doesn’t need a man leading it. It’s a racial social-justice organization that wasn’t founded by men, and yes, that’s a good thing. By having black men take a step back from using our privilege to drown out the voices of black women, gays and lesbians, it allows us to see the full humanity within our community.
For example, the #SayHerName hashtag has been a subset within the Black Lives Matter movement that has addressed the reality that the reaction within the black community to black bodies being killed is not equal. When black men die at the hands of white police, black women rush to the front lines to defend the humanity of their black sons, brothers, fathers, husbands and lovers, and do it unflinchingly. On the other hand, a combination of patriarchy, misogyny and sexism has resulted in an opposite reaction from black men when police kill black women.
The names of Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines and dozens of other black women killed by the police often get the “Yeah … but she wasn’t perfect” treatment from black men—the same black men who would be outraged if being perfect were a standard that white “All Lives Matter” activists imposed on their humanity. This is a standard that Mike Brown assuredly couldn’t pass. And yet, having black women as leaders and not as addendums of Black Lives Matter means that we’re closer to addressing the inequities within our own community that are created by patriarchy, misogyny and sexism.
And if Black Lives Matter weren't constructed as it is, the discussion of black lives and police violence would certainly remain a binary one that would exclude the lives of black LGBT people. For example, Bayard Rustin, the chief architect of the civil rights nonviolent movement, and an openly gay black man, remained in the shadows of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, even as it was his methods that changed American society. Black Lives Matter demands that everyone has worth.
Of course, not everything has gone smoothly over the past two years. There was the dangerous accusation from some in white America that being supportive of Black Lives Matter was being anti-police, which was, as Mother would say … a bold-faced lie. But as Joseph Goebbels, the notorious Nazi minister of propaganda, once said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Telling and retelling that lie of Black Lives Matter being anti-police was the goal of the political right in this country and, often, was part of the talking points for the police as they tried to connect any violence against the police to the Black Lives Matter movement.
A confluence between that big lie and real-life events happened after five Dallas police officers were fatally gunned down during a peaceful Black Lives Matter march over the police killings of two black men: Philando Castile outside St. Paul, Minn., and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. And when three Baton Rouge police officers were killed by a Missouri man, it seemed as if the big lie about Black Lives Matter being anti-police would destroy the organization.
But it didn’t.
Instead, those affiliated with Black Lives Matter gathered to create a comprehensive set of policy solutions, first with Campaign Zero last year, and now the Movement for Black Lives. For every Black Lives Matter critic who asks, "What is the goal of Black Lives Matter?" these campaigns lay out solutions, addressing everything from police brutality, the militarization of police and the broken-windows policies that create over-policing in black and minority communities, to independent boards to investigate police shootings. It’s comprehensive, and also just the beginning. Future Black Lives Matter policy positions will take on issues like immigration reform and immigration rights.
It’s the sign of a maturing social movement that in just two years, Black Lives Matter has moved from the streets of Ferguson to affecting policy in this country. And like all other racial-justice movements, it, too, will morph into a more complex organization as it grows through the years. But what Black Lives Matter won’t do is go away. And that’s probably Mike Brown’s greatest legacy: that his death helped empower a Black Lives Matter movement that will eventually prevent future Mike Browns.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.