They’ve rallied, protested and sparked controversy nationwide. They’ve held national conferences and disrupted the political rallies of presidential candidates. They’ve led protests after the deaths of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin and many others, walking the streets waving signs asking: “Is my son next?”
Black Lives Matter has attracted national media attention and polarized Americans. In light of recent events, such as Beyonce’s controversial Super Bowl halftime show, an activist disrupting a Hillary Clinton fundraiser on Feb. 5 and an activist committing suicide on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse on Feb. 8, BLM has once again entered the media spotlight. But the conversation has left some wondering what exactly the movement stands for.
BLM began as a social media hashtag in 2013 during mass media coverage surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin. Later that year, the national organization was founded by three queer black women named Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza, in an effort to build a queer and trans-affirming black liberation movement, since they felt these minority groups have been marginalized in previous movements.
The three founders were appalled when variations of the phrase started cropping up in hashtags and rallies across the nation, such as Brown Lives Matter, Migrant Lives Matter and Women’s Lives Matter.
“Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too,” Garza wrote on the national BLM website. “It does, but we need less watered-down unity and more active solidarities with us, black people, unwaveringly, in defense of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it.”
The national organization has faced backlash for its name, which some, like the All Lives Matter movement, say is alluding to black supremacy.
“We’re not saying black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways,” Garza wrote. “We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation, and we know that our destinies are intertwined.”
Looking to localize the movement, Cecelia Towner, a single black mother from Vancouver, decided to head up the Black Lives Matter Vancouver chapter after a lunch date with her friend on New Year’s Eve.
“We waited for someone to take the lead here in Vancouver regarding racism,” she said. “By the time lunch was over, the time for waiting was also over. We thought it would be great to have a Vancouver [BLM chapter].”
The chapter is the first in Clark County and likely just the second in the state. The first meeting took place on Jan. 30 at the Community AME Zion Church, a mile east of Clark College. Towner spoke to a multi-generational and racially diverse group of about 40 people from the Vancouver area. They discussed goals for BLM VWA’s future and divided member responsibilities into committees.
“My goal is to start as a place of healing and education within the community,” Towner said. “Theoretically, everyone’s the leader of this group. I’m just the person that is facilitating that leadership.”
In the first week of January, Towner requested to register with the national BLM movement. She heard back in February, and the group is on its way to becoming nationally recognized.
One issue the national movement has faced is each individual chapter tending to have slightly different values or means of activism. Incidents such as the Bernie Sanders rally disruption last August in Seattle by two activists have attracted national criticism towards BLM, and some are wary of the new local chapter’s motives as well.
“I wish them a lot of good thoughts,” said the Rev. Marva J. Edwards, president of the Vancouver NAACP. “I hope it turns out to be what they want it to be and that the public doesn’t take it negatively.”
Edwards expressed concern over Towner’s ability to maintain control of the group, but plans to attend a meeting to show her support.
Towner said she wants to make sure the group has a clear understanding of its goals before they get involved in public activism, so that they don’t misrepresent their values.
“I want to make sure we have strong relationships before that happens,” Towner said. “If we keep talking, we’ll find solutions together.”
Towner said it’s important to recruit blacks from all backgrounds. She said she wants to create a community within BLM VWA in which members can support each other while embracing their differences and commonalities.
Vancouver Chief of Police James McElvain said the Department intends to stay in contact with BLM VWA, though they are still unsure what to expect of the group.
“They’re at the beginning stages in what they are doing, so [they’re] kind of just keeping us in the loop, letting us know what’s going on,” said McElvain at his Chief’s Diversity Advisory Team meeting on Feb. 23. “We’re willing to work with anybody, any group, as evidenced by here.”
The CDAT is a longstanding effort that meets monthly and seeks to address and discuss issues faced by minorities in Vancouver. Members of many diversity groups attend, including Clark’s Office of Diversity and Equity staff members Felis Peralta and Rosalba Pitkin.
The Office of Diversity and Equity helps to “recruit and retain a diverse student body and workforce,” according to Clark’s website. Only 4 percent of Clark students identify as black, with 74 percent identifying as white, according to Planning and Effectiveness.
At the end of the first BLM VWA meeting, the members agreed to meet on the last Saturday of each month. The group originally planned to remain at the Community AME Zion Church, but a spike in community interest has led them to relocate to a larger venue, with the second meeting on Feb. 27 taking place at the Clark County YWCA.
“When a house is on fire you don’t cover all of the houses in the neighborhood with water and say ‘all houses matter.’ You cover the house that is actually on fire, with water. And we need to acknowledge there is a house on fire!” said Port of Vancouver commissioner Eric LaBrant, loosely quoting Macklemore’s song “White Privilege II” at the first meeting.
“There is a problem, and we need to do something about it.”