The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The inequality, frustration, suffering and work that led to 2020’s protests

Black Lives Matter demonstrators protest outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Nov. 22 during the trial of three White men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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‘So given everything that’s happening, are you optimistic about real change? Pessimistic? Or is the verdict still out?” This was the question I heard again and again in the summer of 2020, when protests over the police killing of George Floyd seemed like a daily occurrence.

In a way, coming after the high-profile killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor and so many others, it was the Floyd video that launched a thousand protests, and then some. In fact, by one estimate, there were more than 4,700 separate demonstrations in the United States, or an average of 140 protests a day, in the month following Floyd’s murder. By the end of the summer, evidence suggested that as many as 26 million people had participated in demonstrations against Floyd’s murder, leading some experts to call the protests and their cries of “Black lives matter” the largest movement in U.S. history.

And of course, it wasn’t just a U.S. movement. The protests were international in scope, taking place throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Suddenly everyone seemed to know what Black Americans already knew: that police kill about 1,000 people every year in the United States, that the victims of these killings are disproportionately Black and that way too many are unarmed. Also that most killings go uncharged, and that most officers escape even civil liability because of the doctrine of qualified immunity. Hence the insistent question: “Are you optimistic about real change? Pessimistic? Or is the verdict still out?”

Say Their Names: How Black Lives Came to Matter in America” may not answer that question. But it does do something else. By bringing together five journalists who each offer a take on the buildup to that summer, the book functions as a time capsule that hopefully will be useful to future historians as they assess not just the impact of the protests but also the history of the police violence, and the organizing, that led to them.

In the chapter “Why Black Lives Matter Matters,” the journalist Curtis Bunn tells part of the story of the protests from the points of view of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, the Black women who launched what they would later call a “Black-centered political will and movement.” Consonant with their view that the movement should be bottom-up — an adhocracy — Bunn also tells the stories of everyday organizers, including high school students who conducted teach-ins, founded their own organizations for change and led marches, including one with more than 10,000 participants.

For his chapter, the journalist Keith Harriston uses the stories of a couple of families to describe the quotidian burden of being Black in America and fearing police victimization, and the growing frustration with the role that qualified immunity, police unions and the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights play in shielding rogue officers. At the same time, Harriston is careful to note that unequal policing was just one of many pathologies that sparked the protests; there were also the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate impact on people of color, unequal housing and jobs, and all the rest.

The journalist Patrice Gaines goes back even further, emphasizing our long, long history of unequal policing and detention of Black people. In one of the most sobering parts of the book, she explores some of the country’s first prisons — the Jail and Penitentiary House at Walnut Street, founded in 1790, and the Eastern State Penitentiary, established in 1829, both in Philadelphia. These were Northern prisons, Gaines notes, and yet both reflected unequal policing; they functioned as “the new method of controlling Black bodies.” Visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, now a museum, and you’ll see the first prisoner described this way: “Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. Burglar. Light Black Skin . . . Sentenced to two years confinement with labor.”

Another standout chapter is titled “Church in the Age of the BLM Movement.” In it, the journalist Nick Charles answers a question that I didn’t even realize I had but that seems necessary for any history of that summer of racial reckoning: Where was the Black church? Was it AWOL during the largest movement in history? Given that many of the initial leaders of Black Lives Matter are queer, was the church even welcome? The answer is complicated.

The book is certainly engaging. The one downside is that at times, it felt as if the five journalists were simply contributing chapters on the theme of Black Lives Matter without any unifying narrative. At the same time, the chapters were oddly similar in style. A reader could easily think that the book had been written by a sole author, perhaps reshaped from a feature published in some newspaper or another.

That said, coming at a time when we seem to be experiencing another backlash against racial progress — how else should we interpret the hysteria over the supposed teaching of critical race theory in schools? — the book is a welcome reminder of what is possible. And although it bills itself as recounting “How Black Lives Came to Matter in America,” it is much more than that, given its chapters on how the coronavirus wreaked havoc on Black communities, how the history of modern-day policing is inseparable from the history of slave patrols, Black organizing dating to the 1940s and broader issues such as income inequality.

Perhaps that is the point. All of these things are connected to America’s summer of racial reckoning.

SAY THEIR NAMES

How Black Lives Came
to Matter in America

By Curtis Bunn, Michael H. Cottman, Patrice Gaines, Nick Charles and Keith Harriston. Grand Central Publishing.
352 pp. $30.

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