As a social justice activist and conflict resolution scholar-practitioner, I have always been particularly concerned with what motivates people to enter the theater of protest and civil resistance. It is a far more complicated question than what motivates people to start a career or a family because even the largest social movements are made up of a relative few, and the connection between activism and survival (or prosperity) are not always so clear, especially if one comes from a position of privilege.
Leaving aside the handful of saints whose selfless sacrifice for the downtrodden has inspired millions and whose motivations I will not attempt to elucidate or defame, I think that for many, especially those whose immediate interests are not necessarily served by the campaign they have chosen to join, the core motivation for activism is guilt. This is the feeling I get whenever I hear the term “white allies” in the struggle against racism or the term “male allies” in the struggle against gender oppression. However, this is not to say that all people who actively support a cause that does not immediately further their own interests are motivated by guilt alone or by guilt at all; I will return to this later. This is also not to say that being motivated by guilt is a negative thing. Guilt is a powerful social emotion that curbs sociopathic or otherwise reckless behavior. If guilt inspired white South Africans to vote for Nelson Mandela or the white clergy to support Martin Luther King, Jr. this is certainly better than if they had stayed blissfully apathetic or disdainfully opposed to black liberation.
While there is a selfish motivation behind any response to guilt, since what one ultimately wants is to relieve that sense of guilt, if the same activists are struggling solely to further their own interests, I believe the motivation is the same as that of the Wall Street banker who quietly hired lobbyists to counter the Occupy Movement: power. It does not matter whether the activists are black or white, male or female, privileged or marginalized. Yet power is not always built up as a means to bring others down.
This brings me to #BlackLivesMatter, which has the elements of a cultural movement, inspiring street artists and professional athletes alike. The backlash against it is a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of its true goals. It is interpreted by its critics as a myopic struggle for the empowerment of blacks at the expense of others when it is really claiming, uncontroversially to anyone who believes in basic human rights, that black lives (should) matter along with white lives, brown lives, or any other lives. Judith Butler states it more eloquently: “One reason the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized.” “All Lives Matter,” by contrast, lacks any real focus, historical or otherwise. Moreover, if the critics of #BlackLivesMatter could set aside the hashtag — along with the cynical and deceptive appeal to black-on-black crime as the real culprit — most of them would likely agree that an accountable police force is in the best interests of everyone.
Because this will likely take years to achieve on any massive scale, in the meantime, I am calling on those whose lives already “matter” to police and the society writ large to join the struggle out of solidarity. Support The Truth Telling Project in St. Louis and other efforts to seek truth and justice and unite black and white around common goals. Solidarity is not born of guilt or greed and can only increase the dividends for all participants in the struggle, should they be victorious, and is the proper role of the privileged in relation to the oppressed or victimized in a progressive movement. The privileged individual must understand that there is a system at work that manipulates the oppressed and the oppressor alike and that the liberation of one is irrevocably tied to the liberation of the other. As a white person, I cannot consider myself fully human until black lives truly matter.
Matthew Johnson is a social justice activist and restorative justice scholar-practitioner in the Washington, D.C. area. More of his writing can be found at: http://writingonthewall275.wordpress.com/