Children are safeguarding my ability to write this. They went to jail for me, for you, for Blacks in particular but for all Americans generally. “Black Lives Matter” was what they conveyed. It wasn’t just a slogan. It was an action. Their presence in the street, disrupting business as usual and changing the conversation, spoke symbolically for them: BLACK LIVES MATTER.
Their pure speech (sitting down in the street, blocking traffic, symbolically saying “Black Lives Matter”) was shut down by the system which took it sensitively to heart as if the criminal justice system were a tender orchid. This happened on July 8, 2016 in Rochester New York.
William Brandeis wrote of the founding fathers, “They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.” Whitney v. California, 274 U. S. 357 (1927).
The protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement know about courage. Courage is when you take to the streets, are faced with an occupying police force in riot gear and carrying all the weapons, and you cheer each other with hugs and song and chants and refuse any internal flight-or-fight instinct to break shit in response. None of the protesters destroyed anything. They lobbed… political speech… at East Ave and Alexander: Black Lives Matter!
How dare they, right? Blue lives, all lives, that whole thing. Everyone matters!
I had a dream my daughter got killed by a crane. It was parked in the middle of the street, and she was confused, and stayed in the street just a little too long. In the dream, the crane picked her up and smashed her against the ground. I woke crying. I wondered if that’s what it’s like to have a Black child, to want to protect him from the system, but knowing the system, cold, powerful, not even mean!… not necessarily mean, but maybe just is what it is, a machine that picks things up and smashes them, and knowing my black child would have to be fucking nimble to avoid getting smashed by this system, right in the street. So when I hear people say, Blue Lives Matter, I think, they are saying, essentially, “Crane Drivers Matter!” Well, yes. Everyone matters. People matter one and all. We were created equally. But you know, cranes themselves? The system? It does not matter, to me, the way people do. It is liable to non-human, systemically-intentional error. And system drivers are sometimes, at some point or other, complicit. They do not, I reiterate, need to be cruel, or terrible, in order to be complicit. They can be kind, helpful, alert, vigilant, guardians who come to help when no one else will. They are nice people! Complicit nice people.
They are not, however, tender orchids in the hothouse of the world. They can take complaints. Their shoulders are broader than the tender orchid battalion would have you believe.
They should be able to see that BLACK LIVES MATTER is not oppositional to blue lives or white lives or all lives. The opposite statement is: black lives don’t matter.
Today I represented a protester, because I believe in free speech, not only abstractly, but specifically. But abstractly too, for real; it requires people pushing the boundary. Do you really only want the freedom to talk on the sidewalk without a permit? Tell me more of piecemeal democracy parceled out that you accept submissively, is it nice there? Never mind, let’s get back to America.
Free speech is a protected civil liberty by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Symbolic speech is protected, too. “Pure speech” was upheld in a case called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). That case was about children upholding our liberty as well: John F. Tinker (15 years old), his siblings Mary Beth Tinker (13 years old), Hope Tinker (11 years old), and Paul Tinker (8 years old), along with their friend Christopher Eckhardt (16 years old) decided to wear black armbands to their schools in protest of the Vietnam War and supporting the Christmas Truce called for by Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The armbands were not “words” nor chants nor slogans. They were symbols of political speech. The pure speech, even though it was seen as radical and volatile at that time, was upheld by the Supreme Court.
The protesters who sat, speaking their political speech: BLACK LIVES MATTER; were arrested or given appearance tickets, 74 people in all, many of them, most it seemed, under twenty-five.
The children were dumped into the system, and it spit out many of them fairly quickly. They were given Adjournments in Contemplation of Dismissal, most of them, and turnstile treatment gave them little chance to complain at what had happened, or to speak up for what they felt was grossly unfair. Neither did the legal system give them creative outlet for their message. ACDs are not a bad outcome; generally, it is nearly always an excellent idea to get a client out of the criminal justice system as quickly as humanly possible. Because the judge, the DA, the clerks, the court stenographer, the courtroom officers, the police, the bailiff, ALL of them, are all part of the crane. This is what Black people and their accomplice/allies are told to turn to for justice; to the very thing they are complaining about.
Such complaining takes courage. Courage, the secret of liberty, belongs to the Black Lives Matter movement. I am curious and hopeful to learn what they do next.