Which lives matter?

Seven months ago, the bright lights of the national media captured President Barack Obama's eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, state senator and pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. On that hot summer day in June, the president took care to intone the names of all nine who were gunned down in the church, bringing them into the light for the public to mourn: Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lance. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson.

Obama filled in the shadows of their lives with a picture of what they loved and what the gunman could not defile: the image of the black church as the "beating heart" of the black community.

To a white public often "too blind to see," he spelled out what the black church has meant: a safe haven from white violence, a place of resistance where black Americans regenerate themselves after the daily trials of white hostility and dismissiveness, a meeting place where organizing and marching for rights is subsumed under the sacred banner of "justice." In short, not a white church in blackface, but a sacred space to resist white-inflicted pain.

Another litany of names was circulating in that same media space last June, and as we now know, there is no foreseeable end to this list. At the time of the burial of the Emanuel Nine, the Black Lives Matter movement had lifted up the names of black men who had died in the streets: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. In the past seven* months, this list has swelled and, as we now know, there is no foreseeable end to it.

Undoubtedly, the Emanuel Nine gained more sympathy from some white Americans than these men because the Charleston dead had ties to a church. In his eulogy, Obama called them "good people, decent people, God-fearing people."

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Their actions and motives were not as easily questioned by the white public. The man accused of killing them* did not have the cover of a badge or the ruse of self-defense.

Still, the president's eulogy gained its power from the unspoken presence of these others. Black bodies that would have been left in the shadows like hundreds of others but for the video evidence and the growing rage in the black community.

Black Lives Matter has harnessed that rage and demanded that we as a country not let the dead fade from view.

In Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Berkeley professor Judith Butler asks why some deaths are a cause for public outrage and others are not. She argues that societies construct a "differential distribution of public grieving," and that some dead bodies are merely counted, while others "count."

Those that count are memorialized in public ceremonies, buried in well-tended graves, publicly commemorated on anniversaries. (Since 1906, Confederate graves have been honored with headstones paid for by the federal government; in the last decade alone, the Department of Veteran Affairs has spent $2 million for these headstones.)

Other deaths create no ripple, no public loss. Rather, in Butler's reckoning, they are considered "no life, a shadow-life, or a threat to life."

This determination of which lives matter and which do not does not happen on a conscious level. Butler writes that societies construct social policies and norms and use media in a way that acts as a perceptual frame by which we register the world around us. These frames sort populations into those whose lives are recognized as vulnerable and precarious, and those whose lives are not.

Butler's argument starts with the assertion that is obvious when stated, but obscured in daily life: Every person's life is precarious, and we are all subject to starvation, illness and early death.

But only some lives are seen as precarious, and are treated as such. The people in these groups are more likely to be embedded in systems of social caretaking, including access to healthy and abundant foods, medical plans, hospitals, adequate education, jobs, infrastructures that work. These are the lives that are protected, not threatened, by the police. And because their lives matter when they are alive, they are more likely to be grieved by society when they die.

According to Butler, a racist frame produces "iconic versions of populations" -- some of whom are "eminently grievable, and others whose loss is no loss, and who remain ungrievable."

Groups deemed ungrievable "are made to bear the burden of starvation, underemployment, legal disenfranchisement, and differential exposure to violence and death."

2015 may well be seen as the year that many whites were introduced in an immediate and visceral way to the precariousness of black life in America, thanks to the work of Black Lives Matter. Each tweet, every video harnessed and circulated by the movement shows fragments of white abuse and black pain that is often hidden from the majority of the white public.

Before Black Lives Matter, we would not have heard of the incidents that end this year: Quintonio LeGrier, the agitated 19-year-old man who was shot by a police officer in his home in Chicago, and his neighbor Bettie Jones, dead for answering her door for that officer. If there are indictments in that case, it will be because of the work of Black Lives Matter and allied groups like Black Youth Project 100 and the #LetUsBreathe Collective.

If no indictments are handed down, as happened recently in the cases of Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland, there will be an outcry, taking the place of the silence and isolated sorrow that has walled of black pain from whites for centuries.

As I've talked with many whites about the images circulated by the movement, it is not only the brutality, but the callousness of the police actions that stun.

Eric Garner begs to breathe while policemen hold him in a chokehold, and, equally disturbing, not one of the five policemen attempt to resuscitate him in the seven-minute wait for an ambulance.

A muscular policeman slams a teenage girl at a swimming pool to the ground, pulls her hair and plants his knee in her back before he straddles her on the ground, while other policemen stand by.

A body-building security guard raises a desk up and backward, twisting and slamming a 17-year-old girl onto the hard floor of her classroom.

The large cluster of policemen watch while 16 shots are fired at Laquan McDonald.

Six prison guards, each so large they need to squeeze into Phillip Coleman's prison cell to fit, taser him when he stands up from his bed.

While responsible for their individual actions, these officers did not create the frame. They can be seen instead as the guardians of the frame, the front-line enforcers of a deeper reality that imagines all black lives as threats to be done away with, instead of lives as precarious and valuable as white lives.

It is not only the brutality, but the seeming nonchalance surrounding it that makes it harder for us well-meaning whites to remain oblivious, to tell ourselves that our fellow black Americans are somehow as safe as we are, to soothe ourselves with the notion that we have made progress on race in America.

These images are now out there, bit by bit breaking the frame for all but those who choose to be "too blind to see."

Of course, these images will not, by themselves, change the lived experience of black people. After all, the frame is buttressed by laws and norms that have historically favored white enfranchisement, white hiring, white home-owning, white access to capital, white protection on the streets and in the courtrooms.

But while liberals cite the progress that has been made on these fronts, the Black Lives Matter movement is issuing a deeper challenge: The centuries-old frame that sees black life as "no life, a shadow-life, or a threat to life" must go.

*This article has been updated to clarify language, and to correct the number of months listed.

[Beth Maschinot, a researcher with a doctorate in clinical social work, works with national nonprofits on the effects of trauma in underserved communities. She lives in Chicago.]


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