When the Black Lives Matter hashtag, campaign and movement entered the public consciousness, it was a powder keg of anger that threatened to be lit, or maybe it was the explosion itself, set loose by the seemingly daily incidents of police officers shooting and killing black citizens. The rage against the shootings was instantly expressed by many outside the areas where the killings took place and included individuals of all races and social standing, but as the days wore on, the killings tally increased, and the frustrations mounted, different voices and perspectives entered the discussion, effectively muddying the meanings of the simple message that “Black Lives Matter”. Some of these voices were oppositional and explicitly racist, while others tried to hide their defensive racism in a “let’s just get along expression”, while even more held good intentions and yet followed the same racist paradigm as the former groups. As a relatively quiet and passive supporter of the Black Lives Matter message, groups and campaign, I watched from afar, but when the vegan community stepped into the discussion, I felt it pertinent to speak up against their approach. The following points are meant to support BLM while critiquing and opening discussion with the vegan community to find ways to be true allies to the black community while not creating divisions between oppressions at the same time. As always, I welcome response and discussion to the points I present.
THE BLACK LIVES MATTER CONTEXT
The Black Lives Matter movement did not begin as an isolated, single-issue campaign of abstract ideas, but came to be in a very specific context, contained by a series of actions and incidents that warranted response. BLM formed around the specific relationship between black individuals and the police who were killing those black individuals. As the discussion expanded, institutionalized racism and other racist influences entered the conversation, but the foundational reason any discussion took place was due to the very specific relationship between black citizens and the police. There is, of course, a long history of racism, police repression upon black communities, and institutionalized racism that encompassed these latest killings by police, but the BLM movement specifically was born from the modern context and most recent wave of killings. It is important to recognize these specific, confined parameters in this relationship, as it will expose the wrong-headedness of so many defensive reactions by others who want to believe themselves as anti-racist, or at least paint themselves to be.
It would be wrong to describe the anti-racist movement as mired in single-issue politics and not welcoming to struggles of other peoples, but there is a specific focus upon race with BLM due to it’s creation from this very specifically racist context of police killing black citizens. In these most recent killings the police did not target or kill homosexuals, white people, animals, etc. These were very specific moments involving police officers and black individuals, which has informed this very specific response by Black Lives Matter. That shouldn’t be ignored for good reason.
The very message “Black Lives Matter” is so simplistic to almost be insulting, but in that simplicity is also it’s power. Most justice oriented people recognize that black lives DO matter and many liberals WANT to believe that our society is arranged such that black lives matter, but to the black individuals (and others) who have rallied behind this movement, the reality is exactly the opposite. They are stating what is such an obvious sentiment, precisely because that is NOT the case, as evidenced by these recent killings coupled with economic disparity, skewed incarceration rates, a lack of employment opportunities, etc. It’s one thing to say, “of course black lives matter”, but it’s another to recognize that our societal institutions function in ways that express the opposite, ultimately creating the outcome where black lives are extinguished by the police without much hesitation.
When we admit that black lives don’t matter to our societal institutions (and to the explicit and inadvertent racists managing them), that BLM is a creation of the killings in this racist context, and that the solution is to bring light to the machinations of a racist society, we can then understand why any distraction or outright opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement is problematic at best and a continuation of the racist paradigm at worst.
RACIST TO DEFENSIVE TO COOPTATION
It was only going to be a matter of time before the Black Lives Matter movement met not only resistance, but outright defiance. In a society that is still afraid to lose a sense of privilege by criticizing authority, namely the police – especially after the exaggerated post-9/11 hero worship bestowed upon them – there are bound to be those that run to the defense of the police and their actions, if not to explain them away, then to openly justify their killings. News stories are filled with so much hemming and hawing about what the dead black individual did to be killed by a cop, as we still retain the idea that cops are untouchable, not prone to racism or judgement, and must always be given the benefit of the doubt. It, therefore, didn’t surprise me one bit when the first response to Black Lives Matter was the creation of Police Lives Matter. Considering the type of individual that was often found expressing the Police Lives Matter sentiment (spoiler alert: Rich, Privileged, White), it was obvious this was an outright racist expression. It barely veiled the statement that no matter what happened during the shootings involving the police, the black life that was lost didn’t matter.
Even worse, the Police Lives Matter statement became an abstract social line that demanded citizens to cross. It left no room for debate and meant to imply, “You either stand behind the gun or in front of it.” Ultimately, you either back the racist institution or you back criminality, without using race to say the same. The sentiment could just have easily been, “You either stand with white protectors or you’re black.” Police Lives Matter TRIES to frame the conversation between protection and criminality, but the veil hiding the racism is extremely, insultingly thin. Fortunately, those that want to believe they are not racist or that the system is not informed by racist principles see through the veil and choose not to rally around that expression. In the end, the only people who support and express the Police Lives Matter statement are the most outwardly racist, unthinking, authority-groveling, and/or oppositional type of individual.
Where Police Lives Matter draws too distinct a line from Black Lives Matter, others found a way to walk somewhere between the two, protecting their comfortable, predominantly liberal spaces of privilege that allow them to make a statement against racism without finding themselves so directly in front of the gun. They do this by stating the toothless, apologetic, feel-good, “All Lives Matter”. To this relatively cowardly crowd, who could disagree? I mean, the idea of Black Lives Matter is to make a claim to value and justice for all lives, even black lives, so how could All Lives Matter be an offensive or racist statement? Isn’t that really what Black Lives Matter is saying anyways?
The glaring problem with this “let’s hold hands” approach is that “All Lives Matter” completely takes the teeth out of the statement that black lives, specifically, matter. It’s problematic in it’s wide reaching net of inclusion, because it is reaffirming what society has already told us, that some lives DO matter. The issue being raised by BLM is not that certain lives DO matter, it’s that certain lives in the eyes of dominant culture DON’T matter. That is the problem. That is why black lives are indiscriminately killed by police in a much greater disparity than white lives. It’s why black lives are jailed far more frequently and easily than white lives. And so on. All Lives Matter is a worthless statement, because beyond being a baseline, neutral sentiment, it’s, even worse, a support and defense of a system that claims some lives DON’T matter. It takes the focus away from the issue at hand – that black people are being killed – and makes the already established appeal to the public that black, white, poor, rich, politician, worker should be valued. The issue being addressed by BLM isn’t a matter of general perspective so much as it is a matter of societal machinations, institutionalized racism, and authoritarianism. Black Lives Matter addresses those issues through the reaction to police killing black people, while All Lives Matter does not. All Lives Matter says, you’ve got a problem BUT…, you’re being killed BUT…, you’re worthy of value BUT…, if only because it was stated as a REACTION to Black Lives Matter. All Lives Matter didn’t come as an expression in it’s own context, in it’s own right…it only came to the discussion because Black Lives Matter came first. It is reactionary.
And, let’s be real, it is a defensive, racist reactionary expression. As far as I can gather, the black community didn’t come to the discussion and alter their message to say, “You know, all lives matter, really, even the CEO’s, even the politicians passing racist agendas.” The only people I saw expressing All Lives Matter were white liberals, trying to push themselves off the racist burner that the black community had put them on. I watched so many white people try to avoid the difficult considerations of their actions, their roles in society, their reproductions of race based privilege by inadvertently saying “white people matter, too” through the liberal expression of All Lives Matter. They WANTED it not to be racist, but the very fact that people were willing to muddy the conversation by taking the focus OFF black people alone and divert it to ALL people made it inherently racist. The diversion of the discussion became less about race specifically, which was the origin of the movement, and more towards a general idea of peace and inclusion. By eliminating race from the conversation, it became racist. And isn’t that the root of the issue at hand, that race is dismissed, ignored, and outright silenced? Going from BLACK Lives Matter to ALL Lives Matter reproduces that very dismissal and silencing.
All Lives Matter forgets or ignores that the Black Lives Matter movement sprung from the killing of BLACK individuals, not white individuals, not even asian, middle-eastern, etc., individuals, but BLACK individuals. If the police were indiscriminately killing ALL citizens, then maybe the All Lives Matter sentiment might have more validity, but as it stands, that is simply not the case. Any diversion from focusing specifically on the black lives that are being killed is a racist perspective, no matter how cloaked in world peace, back-patting liberalism it may be. More subtle than explicit or even inadvertent racism is still racism.
THE VEGAN COOPTATION OF ALL LIVES MATTER FROM BLACK LIVES MATTER
At some point in this diluting, digression of Black Lives Matter into All Lives Matter, the vegan community stepped in. Interestingly, there is a distinct similarity between the expression that Black Lives Matter and the vegan assertion that All Lives Matter, (which differs from the intent of the original All Lives Matter “movement”) which is the vegan community’s way of saying ANIMAL Lives (also) Matter, because it addresses an institutional devaluing of specific lives. BLM asserts that society values and treats black lives less than it does other races, while the vegan community states the same towards animals. Society DOES value animals less than humans, in such a way that the machinations of doing so are similar to black lives. They are viewed as a means to an end. Their subjugation supports the functioning of the dominant culture. Their emotional and physical safety (as expressed by the ethical vegan community) is ignored and silenced. There ARE parallels between the two, but in no way does this justify the usage of the All Lives Matter meme, and continues the inadvertent racism of doing so.
The vegan community, I would argue, attempts to co-opt the secondary All Lives Matter meme to their own ends, more than they try to co-opt the primary Black Lives Matter sentiment and momentum. In this secondary (or tertiary) co-optation, I truly believe the vegan community is not doing so out of a defensiveness of their racial privilege – the vegan community being a primarily white, liberal culture – or in a defiant stance to Black Lives Matter, but to highlight the hypocrisy in drawing parameters on “ALL” lives. It could be argued they aren’t even considering the racial/racist dynamics that led to the All Lives Matter statement, but that doesn’t excuse the racism of their ignorance. To co-opt All Lives Matter towards ones own political ends, no matter how far removed from racist considerations, deliberately ignores the context in which it developed. No activist is so sheltered from the larger social context to not be able to explain the race origins of All Lives Matter. In this additional co-optation then, is an attempt at diluting and silencing the power Black Lives Matter originally held and still retains to this day, no matter how inadvertent. If it’s not outright dismissing the racial context of All Lives Matter, it’s irresponsibility ignoring it.
The vegan community’s irresponsible attempt to co-opt All Lives Matter towards it’s own ends essentially creates a game of political telephone where the message that “institutionalized racism is killing black people” turns into “I’m not racist and I care about all people” into “non-vegan liberals are hypocrites”. Just how far can single-issue groups take these messages away from the original point that cops should stop killing black people?
HOW RACIST IS A VEGAN ANTI-RACIST?
If we accept that the vegan community didn’t mean to co-opt the Black Lives Movement, but rather the liberal All Lives Movement, just how problematic does this become? Is it fair to call the vegan usage of the meme racist? I’ve made my case for doing so previously, but it’s worth reiterating. I still assert that the vegan All Lives Matter sentiment isn’t INTENTIONALLY racist, but it still reproduces the same racist machinations of dominant culture by ignoring and/or dismissing the pleas of the black community. Ultimately, one of the greatest problems with the Vegan All Lives Matter expression is that it isn’t ANTI-RACIST. Although it isn’t explicitly racist, it’s also not explicitly ANTI-racist, in effect, remaining neutral. And as has been stated by greater minds, “No one can remain neutral on a moving train.”
The vegan statement of All Lives Matter isn’t anti-racist, it’s anti-speciest. That is a huge problem in the separation from the original anti-racist sentiment of Black Lives Matter (even the liberal racism of All Lives Matter) because it speaks to the white privilege of the vegan community, that allows them to dismiss and ignore race issues for species issues. To completely ignore the race issue roots of BLM / ALM is to dismiss the importance of black voices and essentially state, “That’s nice, but I’m going to talk about animal issues because I’m not affected by cops killing black people.” The predominately white vegan community isn’t being killed by police, so they have the privilege and luxury to uncaringly use the BLM meme for their own ends. This is fundamentally not ok, and lends more to explicit racism and white privilege than a more forgivable, unintentional, inadvertent racism. To ignore the race issues of BLM / ALM is, at best, a very poor recognition of “intersectionality” and draws a distinct line between a predominately white vegan movement and a minimally white anti-racist movement, which does little good for either.
The proposed solutions for eliminating institutionalized racism are complex and difficult, however, the attempts to halt the extension of institutionalized racism and racist perspectives by the vegan community are probably a little more manageable.
First and foremost, we need to stop using #AllLivesMatter. We need to stop using any meme that alludes to the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically the All Lives Matter expression. The space created by Black Lives Matter centers upon the killing of black individuals by the police, the institutionalized racism that lends to this outcome, and related race issues. One of the best actions an ally can make with the anti-racist movement is to allow them that space for expression and not take away from it in any way. If you can, find ways to raise the volume of the critique posed by Black Lives Matter, but at the very least, don’t turn it down or grab the mic.
If you do want to draw a correlation between seemingly separated social issues, do so through your own creations and not on the backs of popular memes or established campaigns, or create connections to these similarities of oppression through the permission of its members, constructively, and not exploitively. Seek discussions with movements and individuals to find the ways you can make each other stronger, against a common enemy, not at the expense of each other.
Our ultimate goal as anti-oppression activists / anti-authoritarians is to recognize the machinations of oppression, call them out, and work at creating their alternatives for the future while dismantling them in the present, but at the same time act to support the moments of resistance to oppression that aren’t immediately in our means. Vegans should always seek commonality with other groups fighting personal oppressions and ensure they aren’t restricting their momentum. Anti-racists should, all the same, seek commonality with other struggles against oppression and avoid restricting forward progress. Whether we are discussing the role of the police, assessing our personal roles in continuing oppression, slowing down the capitalist economy, or finding ways to best place our collective leverage, all anti-oppression activists, no matter their personal issue, are facing a common enemy…and that enemy is not each other. We must always remember that as we push towards a more just existence and put a face to our enemy.