Imagine if the Black Lives Matter movement started not with ordinary citizens like Michael Brown—like the many millions of other black citzens who bear the everyday burden of police brutality—but with a well-loved celebrity teenager. Imagine further that people raised an uproar about what was, of course, a genuine tragedy, and people from all walks of life turned into activists and protestors for the day….but just for the day. Imagine if, after all the memorials were through and after that week’s magazines had already run all the juicy moviestar oneliners about racism and after all the white people that got down with the cause got bored of the struggle, everyone just… moved on and forgot about it.
Do you really have to imagine that hard? How many times have you seen that before?
Anticipating blowback in such a sensitive area, I will clarify: I am not comparing black lives to lions, that would be absurd. But I am pointing out that it took hundreds of years for our society to latch on to the very elementary idea that black lives do matter, and don’t tell me “but those were different times” because it’s now a century and a half past emancipation, and half a century past civil rights, and there’s still a frighteningly huge chunk of our society that’s just not with it, some of whom might not even realize they’re not with it, which is so insane that it would be comical if it wasn’t so deadly.
So now we have this one lion killed and the internet is having a heart attack about it, but why aren’t we talking about the fact that all African lions are being killed an at increasingly frequent rate not by poachers but by farmers because humans have taken their territory so they’ve begun preying on livestock? And why aren’t we talking about the fact that African Elephants, Grevys Zebras, Black Rhinos, and Mountain Gorillas are all, at this point, likely to be poached to extinction within our lifetime? And this is just in Africa.
The man who killed Cecil the lion is receiving death threats; he had to close his business; there are protesters at his door. But where is all this coming from? And where is this rage for the billions of other animals that humans have slaughtered, directly or indirectly? Why do we care about this one lion, if not any of these other things?
Giving The People What They Want
The point is: it takes individual names. For victims of police brutality, it took a Trayvon, then a Michael and an Akai and an Eric, and then a Freddie. It took individuals with names that were enough like our own families and neighbors that we could empathize. That could have been my nephew, people thought, he looks like my roommate.
The point is: how many people were happy to chant ERIC GARNER, MICHAEL BROWN on Times Square Streets but are still so uncomfortable with the simple declaration that “black lives matter” that they qualify it and say things like “well, all lives matter.” Why do some people become symbols, while others are forgotten? How many people care about Cecil the Lion but know absolutely nothing about poaching, human encroachment on habitats, or resource depletion?
Do you care about black lives, or just today’s protest? Do you care about environmentalism and animal rights, or one particular half-domesticated lion that you’ve heard of before?
What, Exactly, Do You Care About?
In general, when there aren’t individuals to rally over, people don’t care. I’m proud of the Black Lives Matter movement for keeping ever more individuals in the spotlight—whether it’s a deliberate attempt to keep the public compassionate or a simple snowball from one life to three to twelve to ten thousand, it’s working. By contrast, environmentalists really suck at that.
It wasn’t just one neighborhood watchman who killed Trayvon Martin, and it wasn’t just one dentist who killed Cecil the lion. If you actually care about individuals, you owe it to them to get educated about the greater social/global issues responsible for their deaths and millions of unnamed others.