Five years ago this week, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Martin, who was just 17 years old at the time of his death, had been walking home from buying Skittles at the local convenience store in Sanford, Florida, when Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, started following him, determining him to be a “suspicious person.” Despite a 911 dispatcher telling him to stand down, Zimmerman pulled a gun on the unarmed teenager, shot and killed him, in what he would claim during his trial was self-defense.
The remarkable injustice of the acquittal gave birth to what is now colloquially known as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Activists around the country used Black Lives Matter as a simple rallying cry to draw attention to the systemic racism rampant in our criminal justice system and the state-sanctioned violence against black communities at the hands of law enforcement officers. Awareness of these injustices is higher today thanks to the organizing efforts of communities of color and allies alike, but we often see daily reminders in the news that this work is far from over.
Here in Wyoming, we know these issues can sometimes feel a world away. Let’s face it — this is a very homogenous state. Of our small and sparse population, 93 percent identify as white. Jackson has one of the most diverse populations, but even so, many Wyomingites don’t see many black folk, and certainly have yet to be exposed to the violent and senseless incidents that were the impetus for Black Lives Matter. This sense of isolation can occasionally result in words or actions that are out of touch with the experiences of people of color who find themselves on the front lines of these fights.
Last week there was a story published in the News&Guide covering a local effort to protest the grizzly bear hunt in the state — an issue we believe deserves debate and discussion. However, when we saw the picture that accompanied this article, it struck a chord well outside the boundaries of any qualms we may or may not have with Wyoming Fish and Game. In the picture appeared a car parked on Town Square with a large teddy bear holding a sign that read, “Grizzly Lives Matter.”
We understand the message the creator of this sign was trying to get across but cannot in good conscience stand by as a community we care deeply about attempts to equate the systematic murder of black people at the hands of police to a legal grizzly bear hunt.
Do the lives of grizzly bears matter? Yes, but this phrase was created to highlight systemic racism and the institutionalized murder of black people. Appropriating it trivializes and undermines its core goals. The sign appeared, at best, atrociously tone deaf and, at worst, staggeringly offensive in its dismissal of everything the Black Lives Matter movement stands for, joining the ranks of other such dilutions, such as “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.”
We had hoped that this would be clear to the broader community and that the backlash to the picture would be swift and strong. But in the dozens of comments and posts across social media about this campaign, we couldn’t find a single person speaking out about the problematic commandeering of this phrase.
Everyone makes mistakes, but it is our willingness to learn from our mistakes and hear other points of view that will result in true progress. Even if you don’t seek to be an active ally, you should work to not be an enemy. Right now, as a country, we are in a moment where holding the lines of social justice is important, even if it’s not a line that directly impacts you. We must keep in mind that there are people in the margins, and when we act, we need to try to not leave them behind.
Jackson claims to be a progressive community. We use the North Star of being inclusive, open, forward-thinking and good stewards to guide us. This week we learn that we still have a long way to go. As privileged white folk we need to hold each other accountable. Jackson can do better.