Most liberal activists and politicians would give anything for a chance to speak at the Democratic National Convention. But as she stood center stage—hundreds of cameras trained on her, dozens of spotlights shining down, a canopy of red, white, and blue balloons overhead—Sybrina Fulton would have given anything to be anywhere else—an alternate reality where her son, Trayvon Martin, was still alive.
“I didn’t want this spotlight,” Fulton said. “But I will do everything I can to focus some of that light on a path out of this darkness.”
As Fulton spoke, other members of the group Mothers of the Movement stood at her side. Gun violence and police brutality killed their sons and daughters. And it’s not a partisan statement to say that far too many women were standing on that stage.
You might have heard of their children. Lucy McBath’s son, Jordan Davis, died after a man shot him dead for listening to loud music. Geneva Reed-Veal’s daughter, Sandra Bland, was found dead in her jail cell after police brought her in for a traffic violation. Gwen Carr’s son, Eric Garner, died in a police chokehold on the streets of Staten Island. Lezley McSpadden’s son, Michael Brown, died after a police officer shot him dead on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking massive protests.
Those were the children of just some of the mothers on stage, none of whom would have hoped to be standing where they were for the reason they were Tuesday night. Yet the very fact of their presence demonstrates just how much clout the Black Lives Matter movement—which started as an online phenomenon in 2013—now wields in mainstream politics.
Hashtag activism comes and goes. You don’t hear much talk of #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls these days. The #IceBucketChallenge lasted one cycle and #WhyIStayed was even briefer. But #BlackLivesMatter has persisted. That’s because police and gun violence continue to kill black people at disproportionately high rates.
As these tragedies accumulate, this largely online movement has made itself impossible for the most powerful politicians to ignore. During the Democratic primaries, leaders of the movement met with Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders to lay out their policy prescriptions for ending the violence. In the wake of recent police shootings by and of police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, they attended a meeting with President Obama and members of law enforcement at the White House.
The movement’s momentum has culminated this week at the Democratic National Convention, where the Black Lives Matter movement is all over the stage, the protests, and events around Philadelphia. Many #BlackLivesMatter supporters believe this type of high-profile political foothold is precisely what the movement has needed.
“That’s the only way. There have been protests, demonstrations. There have been community committees, but there have been no results,” said Clinton supporter Tara Hammons, 46, shortly after listening to the Mothers speak. “Finally this issue is being heard. It’s finally being raised to this national level.”
“In order to effect change you have to affect the laws,” says Bruce Ford, a 25-year-old delegate from Baton Rouge. Black women, Ford says, are the most disenfranchised people in this country. “It’s amazing to see the people with all the odds stacked against them be on stage and persevere.”
But #BlackLivesMatter’s impact on the Democratic party this year is visible far beyond the bright lights of the stage. The three-word mantra is there in the chants of protesters marching down Broad Street. It’s printed in block letters on novelty pins hawked by street vendors around town. It was even at Twitter’s convention home base, where the company hosted a panel discussion on “black Twitter,” the online community that gave rise to the now-famous hashtag.
‘Finally this issue is being heard’ Tara Hammons
Still, spotlight or no spotlight, Patrisse Cullors, who helped launch #BlackLivesMatter after Trayvon Martin’s death, says she took no pleasure watching the Mothers of the Movement have their moment on Tuesday night. “It’s heartbreaking to see all these black mothers speaking about their children’s death,” says Cullors, who watched on television as chants of “Black Lives Matter” echoed through the arena.
But Cullors also knows how easily politicians could have forgotten this issue had it not been for the work she and millions of others have done online for the last three years. “If it wasn’t for those of us who have sacrificed the last three years to challenge the government on how they relate to black lives, the DNC wouldn’t have the Mothers of the Movement as a featured speaker,” Cullors says. “There wouldn’t be people chanting Black Lives Matter.” The fact that they are chanting gives Cullors reason for “measured optimism” that this leaderless, social media-fueled movement she helped kickstart might actually be able to force a Clinton presidency to do something about all this needless death.
Not the Only One
Clinton hasn’t always had the easiest relationship with Black Lives Matter supporters. Nor has her husband. At times this election cycle, protesters have interrupted Clinton events to chastise the former first lady for using the racially charged term “superpredators” to describe a certain class of criminals back in 1996. And some still blame President Clinton’s crime bill for exacerbating mass incarceration, which has disproportionately afflicted black Americans.
Throughout primary season, the former Secretary of State has tried to make amends. She apologized for the superpredator comment. She kicked off her campaign last April with a talk on criminal justice reform. And she’s promised, among other things, $1 billion for training and research to combat implicit bias in law enforcement.
‘I didn’t want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of that light on a path out of this darkness.’ Sybrina Fulton
Still, not every supporter of Black Lives Matter agrees that Clinton is the one to accomplish the enormous task of curbing the violence that brought so many mothers to the stage. After Bernie Sanders’ dramatic motion to name Clinton the Democrats’ official nominee, Georgia delegate Khalid Kamu, an organizer of the Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter, joined a walkout of Sanders supporters. Standing outside the arena with other protesters, he said he remains unconvinced that Clinton’s policies in office would live up to the promises presented on stage. “I don’t know if I want to be part of this show, where you pretend to embrace something, but your policies don’t change,” he said.
But for the mothers on stage, the only other option in this race—Donald Trump—is really not an option at all. During last week’s Republican National Convention, GOPers ridiculed the phrase “black lives matter” and even described it as racist. Last year, Trump summed up his feelings about the movement to Bill O’Reilly: “I think they’re trouble.”
Against that kind of resistance, the goals of Mothers of the Movement seem daunting. But getting there starts with a simple enough ask. As Sandra Bland’s mother put it, “I’m here with Hillary Clinton because she is a leader and a mother who will say our children’s names.” After tonight, Clinton won’t be the only one.