Just one day after a mural of Sandra Bland was painted in Ottawa, Canada, it was vandalized Tuesday with the slogan "All Lives Matter" to cover the words "Black Lives Matter." Bland has become a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement that meant so much to her during her life as an activist; to many, her violent arrest and mysterious death in jail reflect the structural racism and police brutality African Americans are far more vulnerable to. The defacement of the Sandra Bland mural demonstrates what is so obviously problematic about the slogan "All Lives Matter" to black activists, but might not be to others.
Vandals undermined the deeply meaningful slogan "Black Lives Matter" that was originally painted on the mural. And like these taggers, many Americans still undermine and invalidate black activists' choice of words and the lived experiences with racism that these words are inspired by. Anyone who says "black lives matter" out loud can frankly expect at least one person to chime in to counter them with the question: "If the lives of black people matter just as much as the lives of white people, then why does the slogan only proclaim that black lives matter?"
In theory, the answer to that question should be pretty simple. The fact that in America, white people have never experienced a kind of oppression that forced them to proclaim that, yes, their lives do matter, is very telling of the different circumstances of black and white communities in history and, sadly, today. Yes, everyone has faced oppression throughout history. But think about it: White people have never really been oppressed because of their race. If they were oppressed, it was because of their religion, gender, identity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class.
Ultimately, however, people who use the slogan "all lives matter" have been rendered blind by their own racial privilege and fail to recognize that while all lives should matter, this isn't yet the case. Yes, the Black Lives Matter movement is about racial equality. However, the whole point of activists declaring "black lives matter" instead of "all lives matter" is that the movement is a fight to achieve equality that African Americans (rightly) don't feel that they have in society yet.
It's very easy for white people or anyone who has never felt persecuted by societal prejudice to believe that equality already exists and there's nothing left to fight for, but this simply isn't true. The Black Lives Matter movement is not for or about people who already feel comfortable with how society treats them or believe the fight for equality is over because, personally, they are well-accommodated. Black Lives Matter is for and about all African Americans who have experienced and will likely continue to experience structural racism that white people never will.
This hot-button issue of "Black Lives Matter" vs. "All Lives Matter" has also become a point of tension in American politics. Hillary Clinton once countered the slogan "Black Lives Matter" with "All Lives Matter;" at the Netroots Nation rally in Phoenix, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley used it, too, and brushed the issue off as a matter of phraseology. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, chimed in that O'Malley had nothing to apologize for in saying "all lives matter."
People who use the slogan "all lives matter" probably aren't racists — but they certainly are ignorant to what the original message is supposed to mean. And in this case, their ignorance is a consequence of racial privilege. Some white people don't understand the significance of saying "black lives matter," because they have never had to defend themselves or their rights to exist in society like black people have.
However, regardless of whether or not you can empathize with the plight of black people in America, there is no excuse for invalidating their experiences and suffering and undermining how they choose to express themselves. In the same vein, there is simply no excuse for whoever who painted "All Lives Matter" on Bland's mural. That vandalism was not just disrespectful to a cause that is so important, but to the memory of Sandra Bland, a passionate Black Lives Matter activist. Thankfully, others were quick to restore the mural and its original message that same day.
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