I’ve been processing seemingly contradictory emotions since the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. I am at once in awe of and humbled by this youth resistance movement and its solidarity efforts, and yet almost indescribably devastated. This feeling of devastation goes beyond the tragic and preventable loss of life; it is connected to the loss of humanity that happens when we as a society choose to support some of our children while ignoring or even maligning others.
Why was it so easy to support the Parkland youths while the youths in the Movement for Black Lives were repudiated and disregarded?
I know that the defense for enthusiastically supporting the young people in Parkland while remaining immovable on Black Lives Matter (the media’s catchall term for all black organizers, regardless of actual affiliation) is that the latter supposedly had no actionable goals and no leadership.
And yet the documented wins made possible through BLM’s dedicated leadership, as well as the fearful hostility in the state’s response, tell a different tale.
For the past four years, I have been part of a movement that has matured into the Movement for Black Lives, a collaboration of organizations that include groups like Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100 and the Dream Defenders. For years, these groups, largely led by young people, have been fighting for a better world.
Our work has influenced changes to policies and legislation that endangered American lives. We have demonstrated against police brutality, created a policy platform that covers everything from tax reform to education, fought for the dignity of black people by pushing back against mainstream-media narratives, and engaged in electoral-justice projects that have led to more black people, and especially black women, running for office.
So much of this work began with the Dream Defenders, also started by students in Florida fighting gun violence. Dream Defenders fought the “Stand your ground” self-defense law all the way to the state Capitol after it was used to defend the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. This fight is not a new one, but the Parkland students offer it a new face, one that was invited into the building instead of being forced to stage a 30-plus-day sit-in, as the Defenders did.
So this isn’t actually about whether or not the baseless assumptions of “no goals or leadership” were true—clearly, they were not. It is about why so many people needed to believe it to be true in order to justify not supporting black youths.
We are not facing the real issue of what this country has done in constructing assumptions about race so deeply held as to be scarcely acknowledged. We believe that the youths from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, largely white and white-presenting, are innocent and therefore worthy of our sympathy and protection, whereas black youths and other black people are never considered truly innocent. There is always this societal narrative when it comes to the killing or persecution of black people that we somehow did something to deserve it.
The widely held belief that black people “deserve it” is so pervasive that it doesn’t ever need to be said. It is embodied in every person who suggests that Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have been wearing that hoodie; that Rekia Boyd shouldn’t have been outside her house; that Michael Brown shouldn’t have talked back; that Aiyana Stanley-Jones shouldn’t have been sleeping in her bed; that Tamir Rice shouldn’t have been playing in the park; that Sandra Bland shouldn’t have been driving her car.
This hideously loaded conclusion is something that black children become aware of as soon as the outside world becomes aware of them. We are taught that our lives have less value and that people can both fear us and not be fearful of us, as we wield no real power of which to be afraid. We learn about our people and ourselves from anyone who does not look like us. We are not believed when we tell the truth. We are made to believe that we deserve poverty, food deserts and over-policed, treeless communities.
It is a terrible thing when people in a society accept that another group is beneath them; it is worse still to be those underfoot.
And it saddens me to say that this moment serves to remind black youths that the world cares less about them than it does other children. The rush of support for the Parkland youths from mainstream-media spots, to sizable financial contributions from celebrities, to high-powered activists helping to organize their march and amplify their work, is exactly what young people deserve—and it’s why the drastic difference in how Black Lives Matter was received is all the more apparent.
M4BL made it possible for the Parkland resistance to exist as it does today. The Parkland students are interrupting politicians who refuse to speak to real issues. They are planning a march. They have multiple emerging faces of leadership. These are precisely the same tactics designed by the young people in M4BL when they were confronted with gun violence in their communities; the only difference of consequence is that the latter group is black.
It is because of this reality that youths in M4BL had to do it alone, largely abandoned by society, and still managed to influence every societal level from culture to Congress. These young people were told repeatedly, from every side, that no one would assist them because of a “lack of leadership.” If a dearth of leadership were actually the problem, wouldn’t efforts to build up black leadership have appeared in the same ways that they are so readily available for Parkland youths now? Where were these efforts a few short years ago?
To be black in this world is to know that what is acceptable in the actions of other people is unacceptable in you. The double standard in protest is no exception when tactics informed by black resistance, like disruption, are celebrated unless black people are the ones doing the disrupting. Our attempts to wrest for ourselves the very basic dignities and rights that all human beings should enjoy results in our being hunted as “black identity extremists.”
At the heart of the matter: There isn’t one black person I know who isn’t supportive of the Parkland youths, and who isn’t also hurting from the constant reminder that we are undeserving of the same love and support.
As America tries once again to forge a new dream of itself, we cannot negate the reality that the very presence of those denied the dream only serves to destroy it. Black people cannot be treated as if the issues that impact us are ours alone when they are connected to the entire structuring of the Western world. If history has taught us anything, it is that no real progress is possible without the presence of black people. True progress begins when we show up for black youths who have the courage to fight for a world better than the one they inherited.
Janaya Khan is a lecturer, author and co-creator of Black Lives Matter Canada. They are currently based in Los Angeles, pending Wakandan citizenship.