Over the weekend, Samuel L. Jackson recorded a call to action in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is protesting aggressive policing of black people. The actor, in a video posted to his Facebook page and has since been shared more than 68,000 times, sang a short song ("We ain't gonna stop 'til people are free") and challenged others to post videos of their doing the same. Specifically, he directed his message at “all you celebrities out there who poured ice water on your head,” a reference to the ALS ice bucket challenge that went viral this summer.
As more and more people join the movement that emphatically declares the sanctity of black life, its mission is at risk of losing intensity. The righteous tools of protest are steadily being co-opted by the social-media masses, wherein popularity supplants solidarity as the motivation for some participants.
At the height of the ice bucket craze, a high school classmate dared me to subject myself to the freezing baptism. The challenge was an ingenious promotional tool employed (but not invented) by the nonprofit ALS Association to raise money for research into Lou Gehrig’s disease. I accepted my friend's dare, and told him I would double his donation toward combating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He had no clue what I was talking about. He did the challenge because it was popular, not to support some disease.
Similarly, today there are countless videos of people—congressional members and staff, suburban high school students, and even people in other countries—walking with their hands up or staging die-ins on our television screens. Professional athletes and celebrities have donned t-shirts emblazoned with the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man choked to death by a police officer for selling cigarettes: “I Can’t Breathe.”
The rapid spread of #BlackLivesMatter, built by a new generation of activists rather than legacy civil rights leaders, is nothing short of revolutionary. With only the power of their message, strength of conviction, and social media, these young black leaders have innovated and pioneered a new form of grassroots movement, the likes of which our nation has never seen. The movement has ignited a national debate about how our society generally, and police specifically, treat young black Americans.
The resulting virality is not entirely a curse. I do not doubt the sincerity of the athletes and celebrities who have joined the cause. But with their attention comes those who look to personally profit from the momentum of the movement. And we must be certain to guard against the dilution of the core message by pop-culture.
Black Lives Matter has caught the eye of some who are detached suppliers at best, and disingenuous profiteers at worst. Looking to meet the demand of protesters who want to be clothed in the movement’s mantras, countless vendors are selling “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts. Most of these sellers are not donating proceeds to the movement or any other charity, and it turns out some of the shirts were created in inhumane workshops in Haiti. Once again, black suffering is being commoditized.
"I Can’t Breathe" is not a promotional tool. "Black Lives Matter" is not a motto. "Hands Up, Don’t Shoot" is not an advertising catchphrase. These declaratives are pleas for justice. And die-ins and traffic-defying protests are serious political actions, not merely photo ops. The movement is not for sale or to win popularity contests.
It was inevitable that Black Lives Matter, once it became widespread, would attract people who simply want to be a part of a social movement, whatever it may be. But even these bandwagon activists can be leveraged. The ice bucket challenge, after all, brought in $115 million for the ALS Association.
Black Lives Matter is less about raising money than raising awareness, continuing the debate, and demanding action. Even if the movement's less committed participants are effectively free advertising, their presence can widen support. It's a truism of civil disobedience that sometimes quantity is a more persuasive argument than reason. But the most important characteristic is always purity of conviction.