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“It’s a human rights issue that should outrage everyone, regardless of race”

London-born journalist Marissa Charles, 40, has lived in Los Angeles for 11 years. Here, she reflects on how the recent shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are affecting race relations in her adopted country and how the discussion around Black Lives Matter is slowly changing.

It was a Saturday morning in Venice, California, and I was having breakfast in a trendy eatery with two friends.

And we started counting. We couldn’t remember all of the names and situations, but the phrase, “And then there was the one where…” punctuated our conversation.

But we weren’t talking about classic Friends episodes or listing the many people Donald Trump has publicly sparred with.

We were going through the high profile cases of African-American men and women whose violent deaths (or the events leading up to them) – many involving police – were caught on camera.

sandra bland

Sandra Bland

Tamir Rice – the 12-year-old boy who was shot by cops while playing with a toy gun in a park.

Eric Garner – the New York father who was captured on video saying repeatedly, “I can’t breathe,” while an officer held him in a chokehold.

Sandra Bland – the driver who died in police custody (allegedly by committing suicide), after being stopped by a cop for changing lanes without turning her indicator on.

Trayvon Martin – the Florida teen who was shot by Neighbourhood Watch enthusiast George Zimmerman. His only crime seemed to be walking through a nice neighbourhood while being black and wearing a hoodie.

We listed about 10 incidents that have taken place since 2012. The interesting thing – and it probably wouldn’t be noteworthy anywhere but in the US – is I wasn’t lamenting this with two black people. I was talking to an East Indian-American man and a white woman.

I am a black Brit – born in London, partly raised in New Jersey – who has lived in Los Angeles for 11 years. For the last four I’ve watched race relations in this country worsen, and tensions rise, as cases like the ones I’ve listed above seem to occur with more frequency.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, I’d see the phrase pop up in my Facebook newsfeed.

It started off with African-American women – usually mothers, usually my aunts – wearing T-shirts and sharing posts in support. Young, socially conscious black men (my friends and cousins) would post statistics and links to op-ed pieces. One relative, Cid Nichols, was on the front lines protesting after her successful social media campaign led to the Millions March NYC in December 2014.

But in the past week, something has changed. 

millions march nyc

Signs on a police car at Millions March NYC in 2014 (image: Rex Features)

With the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota – more of my white Facebook friends are publicly showing they too are organised and prepared to take a stand.

As the nation reeled from the assassination of five Dallas cops topping off a week of extraordinary bloodshed, these friends boldly declared that black lives matter.

From the young mum who urged people to attend a local meeting with her, to those who admonished others for implying that Sterling and Castile were not innocent because they had committed (or were suspected of being involved in) some previous crime.

But as one mate pointed out over dinner last week, race shouldn’t define our response. She believes the problem with the US media is that these stories – and the reactions to them – are reported divisively along racial lines, as though acknowledging that black lives matter is an African-American issue that should solely be the concern of ethnic minorities. It’s not, she says. It’s a human rights issue that should outrage everyone, regardless of race.

She’s right. But I can’t help feeling sad that, eight years after the US elected its first African-American president, real change will only start to take place when white people and black people unite to declare that black lives matter. Because all lives don’t matter until black lives matter too.

It’s sad but true that in America, black voices can chant it or post it until we’re blue in the face, but we won’t be properly heard until white voices are angry enough to join in. If my Facebook newsfeed is any reflection, increasingly ‘they’ are.

marissa charles

Marissa Charles is a freelance writer and journalist for newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Follow her on Twitter @MCharlesMedia.

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