Last week, I was on the front-lines of a huge demonstration that took place outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. Hundreds of AME churchgoers were there for their national convention and they collaborated with NAACP's Youth & College Division to put on this peaceful march downtown.
A friend of mine who helped organized the event insisted that I join her at the front of the group. I was initially hesitant as I had my concerns that being young and openly gay amongst clergy leaders would cause an uncomfortable situation. I personally identify as a modern deist and am not very connected to an organized religion in general. I had heard during many faith-affiliated demonstrations across the country some clergy would use that time to condemn people according to their faith and insert a narrative of respectability politics while speaking on equality and social justice. The irony. Go figure.
But that didn’t happen on that hot Thursday evening as hundreds of locals in the city flocked to join hands and remind the nation that Black lives matter. In fact, it was the most accepting political demonstration I had ever attended. Young, elder, rich, poor, men, women, LGBTQ, Black, brown, white, religious and non-affiliated were not judged, discriminated or rejected. We all got along as the police were respectful in allowing us to practice our First Amendment right without a single arrest or citation.
For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was idealistically living in the 21st century until I was reminded of what caused such unison to begin with.
Right now, our nation is faced with an epidemic. It’s virus is called extrajudicial police killings. Whether guilty or not, our Black men and women are being gunned down through an unwarranted escalation of police enforcement. We never get to know what happened to the countless victims who are slain before they get a fair trial. Their families have to mourn in the shadows as our judicial system fails many of them with constant non-convictions. In fact, some officers responsible don’t even face an indictment.
As a 24-year old Black man, I’ve become desensitized to it all. I can’t count how many hashtags I have had to post in recent years on social media to reflect on their death. It’s almost like having to put a rose on the casket of another brother and sister lost too soon. As a journalist, the pain carries into the newsroom where I have to keep a straight face as I check white colleagues on their insensitivity and remind myself that doing this work is necessary in a world that still spits out misinformation during a 24-hour news cycle.
The experience is traumatizing, but then there are moments of hope. My experience marching for justice down Philadelphia’s Center City that Thursday was one of those times. And it began to make me realize how much of the movement needs to look like this. How much wisdom was bestowed upon me by elder faith leaders who didn’t care about my age, faith or sexual orientation, but saw me as a Black brother whose life mattered to them.
In many ways, it was a ceremonious time — a rejuvenating fellowship. For far too long, I felt that my activism couldn’t be understood by those who fought for these causes decades ago. The public shaming I saw my contemporary comrades face made me doubtful that we as a people could ever find a common ground. And then I heard these words from an elder clergyman on the frontline of the march and it all clicked:
If you’re fighting for justice, then that’s all that really matters.
It was a simple remark, but it was all that needed to be said. So often, society wants sermons and boisterous declarations to feel inspired. I didn’t need all of that, just a reminder to keep on pushing. It was that brief remark that inspired me to think about the current state of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and what it will take for us to solidify our presence in ensuring racial justice.
For one, this movement should reiterate the importance of everyone’s involvement being required and fairly allotted. No matter if you’re working class or extremely wealthy — losing Black lives unfairly in this nation is an immense travesty to us all. Whether you choose to publicly demonstrate or address a racist policy at your place of employment, these are the institutional steps that are needed across the board to save us. You can do something: get more involved in your community, register to vote (and actually do so during national and local elections), become more familiar with those who manage your streets and schools and mentor the the youth.
Furthermore, such action must be fairly distributed amongst our tribe. If you are a celebrity, major influencer or mover and shaker of our culture, you have to do more than just post a hashtag. You’re more connected to the elected officials and power-brokers who make laws than anyone else. Use that power and social capital to push them on these issues harder. We will retweet you, shout you out and back you up — but your absence and lip service isn’t going to help take us to the top.
In addition, we need to stop judging and start including across the board. This movement needs all of our identities involved because our culture is a reflection of diversity within itself. That means we need to let go of the internal sexism, homophobia, colorism, ageism, ableism and classism that has caused traffic in us uniting behind this social justice movement. When we speak of Black liberation — that means all Black people should be freed from the systemic oppression we face daily. As a Black gay man who faces racism and homophobia on regular basis, I shouldn’t have to defend my Blackness or hide my sexual orientation in order be a part of this movement. It’s time to seriously get intersectional, as the originators of the Black Lives Matter Network intended to be.
And lastly, it’s time to unify amongst a tangible and visible set of legislative demands. Yes, I know many of them exist out there on the internet, but if you ask many followers citywide what the BLM movement wants, “justice” is the vague answer. In the past, there was an initial call for body cameras on officers, but that proved to be slightly ineffective as video footage didn’t bring justice to victims’ families. As a media producer, I have noticed many protesters make guest appearances on major cable networks and have talking points that don’t specify direct legislative calls for action. In recent talks, there has been a demand for a national commission on monitoring police interactions with civilians. Bingo, we should keep this form of productivity going. Too often it is easy for elected officials to hide under the veil of tending to all of our needs without addressing specifics. As a collective, it is our duty to formulate plans that tackle the current mismanagement that is causing law enforcement to persistently drop the ball and not face conviction. Yes, we can point to broader implications such as racism, discrimination and injustice — but it’s time to call these atrocities out in their judicial handbooks and hold our lawmakers accountable in fixing them.
I know, it’s a lot of work, but our lives depend on it. This movement can no longer just be one of visibly physical protest. It has also has to be one that also includes persistent and straightforward legislative demands as well. Yes, hearts and minds can change, but laws make them move faster. It’s time to get in intersectional formation and implement the call for justice louder, stronger, and more clear. Our lives matter, it’s time to legislate it.
Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Ernest Owens is an award-winning multimedia journalist and editor for Philadelphia Magazine's G Philly. At 24 years old, he is the youngest weekly columnist for a major American city with his iconoclastic column, The Ernest Opinion, for Metro US. His work has been featured in USA Today, The Huffington Post, The Advocate and other media outlets. Later this year, the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists will be awarding Owens their prestigious Trailblazer Award for his innovative, barrier-breaking contributions to media. A graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, he is currently producing and starring in his own television talk show, ErnestlySpeaking!, at Philadelphia Community Access Media, where he is the youngest television host to have a talk show in Philadelphia.
(Photo: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)