I learned that black lives don't matter to a lot of people on February 17, 2003. Early that morning there had been a stampede after mace had been sprayed at a crowded Chicago nightclub and 21 people were trampled to death or suffocated trying to flee the building. I found the images disturbing and horrifying and I spoke about it with several people that day. Three of these people, whom I'd known forever and liked very much, said pretty much the same thing: "Who cares? Just a bunch of n-----s" or "Just a bunch of stupid n-----s."
I couldn't believe the lack of compassion following this terrible event. I was enraged by the worst display of overt racism I had ever experienced, and I'd already seen plenty. But that day I realized for an absolute certainty that to many people black lives simply don't matter.
I come from a fairly racist community. I come from a Sundown Town. In a Sundown Town, to this day you can hear old timers longing for the days when a big sign in in their town read, "N----R, DON'T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOUR BACK." It was a warning that if you were a person of color who worked in or passed through that white community you would be subjected to violence if you weren't out by dark. I've heard people "brag" about that all my life.
Today the white people in this town and the places nearby are much more tolerant and much less racist than they were 50 years ago, of course. More African Americans live in these towns, but you can still hear nostalgia for how it used to be spoken often. And oftentimes the "enlightened" white citizens will tell you they are NOT racist and immediately follow that statement up with an explanation of the "two types of black people. There are black people and then there are n-----s." They will often acknowledge that it's the same with white people, and sometimes generously offer that "white trash people can be just as bad as n-----s." I've heard this conversation in my life more times than I can count. And I've heard a dead African American referred to as "just a n----r" more times than I can count as well.
This is why Black Lives Matter matters to me. All lives matter to me very much. Blue lives matter to me very much. I deeply respect Law Enforcement Officers. How would you like to be the first person to show up at the scene of a gruesome, deadly car accident and have to do this on a regular basis? How would you like to be called to show up on a scene where a person was murdered or committed suicide? How would you like to knock on somebody's door and tell them that their child has just been killed? Oh, I respect law enforcement very much and appreciate them for awful things that they have to do. Oh yes, all lives matter to me.
But the Black Lives Matter movement matters to me, too. Because I know why it exists -- to make people aware that for too many people, millions of people, African American lives simply don't matter. THIS IS AN INDISPUTABLE FACT. And racism still lingers on in Sundown Towns, cities, and institutions all across America. And for decades our criminal justice system has incarcerated millions of (disproportionately black) Americans for non-violent substance abuse crimes, destroying families and futures, saddling young people with criminal records, creating more substance abuse and violent crime. And of course the way too often police shootings that are causing this issue to come to a head (could it be the result of this?).
On a recent visit to the grounds of Harvard University, I was happy to see all of the Black Lives Matter signs posted around the place, more than I'd seen on my whole New England excursion. I happily pointed this out to my traveling companion. Somebody close by spoke up to correct me. "All lives matter," they said in an annoyed tone. I was enjoying myself too much to argue the issue. I'm just glad it's finally an issue.