The Black experience in America has always been a story of struggle. From the plantation to the project block, from Emmett Till to Ahmaud Arbery, and from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, we have constantly fought for equality and fair treatment under the law, only to have those same laws be used against us.
The past year has been particularly challenging — with the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others becoming indelibly etched into our collective memory and millions of people taking to the streets to protest these crimes against the Black community. As we celebrate Juneteenth, we must look back on all the events of the past year with clear eyes to examine both the tragedies and triumphs our community has witnessed.
There have been moments of hope that the system is finally edging toward equality, like the recent conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes while Floyd called out, “I can’t breathe.” Chauvin’s conviction and sentencing marks one of the few times in the painful history of Black people in America when law enforcement was held accountable for the wanton acts of violence they perpetrate against our community.
But for every conviction like Chauvin’s, there is a long, tragic history of innocent Black men and women being murdered — their deaths generating little more than a passing mention on the local news and their killers going unpunished. From Medgar Evers to Breonna Taylor, our country’s history is filled with these injustices that the powers that be try to sweep under the rug.
Floyd’s death, which was captured in brutal clarity on a bystander’s cellphone, along with those of Arbery, Taylor and so many more challenged the status quo of racial injustice like never before. Millions of Americans of every race, color and creed stood up, spoke out and made Black Lives Matter the largest social movement in the country’s history.
Starting last summer, “Say Their Names” became a rallying cry for millions of Americans across the country tired of police brutality and racial injustice. From Minneapolis to Manhattan, Atlanta to Los Angeles, we took to the streets of America’s biggest cities and smallest towns under a blazing summer sun to voice our anger. All races, colors and creeds marched on Washington, D.C., to let leaders know that it was time to stop fanning the flames of racism and to declare that we would remember who was guilty.
We will continue to organize. We will continue to march. We will continue to “say their names” until their justice — not just for Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, but for every Black and brown person in America who has experienced systemic racism, police brutality and political indifference to these injustices.
While our voices were seen on television sets and computer screens across the world, and we applaud the tireless work on the ground of leaders like Rev. Al Sharpton and National Action Network, our voices were also heard through our online activism — which for many was the only way to speak out during the COVID-19 pandemic — as we demanded politicians take notice and take action at both the state and local level.
A new report released earlier this year by The 400 Foundation, The BLK+Cross and Marathon Strategies reveals how our new era of digital demonstrations and online organization is driving real change on social justice issues. The analysis found that states with the most online conversations about social justice in 2020 also saw the most legislative action on police reform. In fact, the four jurisdictions most mentioned in social justice conversations — Minnesota, Georgia, New York and Washington, D.C. — saw 110 police reform measures introduced.
Overall, our report found that the names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were shared online nearly 50 million times from last June to September — making it clear that saying the names of the victims of racial injustice was essential for political action.
In the coming weeks and months, we must say their names again as we remember their lives and the injustices they suffered. We must say their names during public demonstrations in city streets. We must say them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and throughout the digital universe. And we must keep saying them until we achieve justice for them, their families, and the countless Black lives lost to racial violence.
Bachus is a former pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and the president of the 400 Foundation.