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Black Lives Matter? What’s in a Name.

December 14, 2015

Over the past few months, Black Lives Matter (BLM) supporters have disrupted political rallies held by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  One supporter was attacked and wrestled to the ground at a Donald Trump event.  The increased in popularity of the BLM movement has provoked controversy over the name black lives matters and of their motives.  BLM supporters have been very aggressive both in promoting their cause and confronting those (both supporters and opposers)  who fail to use the group’s name correctly.   In addition,  BLM, which was founded by three women after the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2013, has made their presence known on many college campuses.   According to the BLM website, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

Many people are sympathetic to the cause of BLM but disagree with the group’s name and prefer to use the phrase “All Lives Matter” much to the fury of BLM organizers.  

But let’s look at this issue from a rhetorical grammar perspective.

First, the source of confusion by those not a part of the movement is not understanding that BLM includes an implied adverb.   Those who sympathize with the cause of BLM may be less hesitant to embrace the organization if the group’s name was Black Lives Matter Too  or Black Lives Matter Also.  Including one of those adverbs in the name refutes and shifts the stance of the phrase from exclusive to inclusive of other people.  However, BLM organizers believe that African Americans are often excluded from “all lives matters” when it comes to interactions with the police, and they want to take a more aggressive stance in their message..  

In other words, “all lives matter” really means only white lives matter.  If that was not the case then the syllogism below would be applicable and there would be no need for BLM:

     Because the police should not take the lives of unarmed citizens,

     and Michael Brown and Eric Garner were unarmed citizens,

     the police should not have taken the lives of Garner and Brown.  

However BLM protesters and other social justice groups believe that mainstream America needs an additional premise in that syllogism because African Americans are not viewed as full citizens when dealing with the police:

     Because the police should not take the lives of unarmed citizens,

     and Michael Brown and Eric Garner were unarmed citizens,

     and Black lives matter,

     the police should not have taken the lives of Garner and Brown.

The premise “Black Lives Matter” has to be established, recognized, and affirmed before the conclusion can be reached.  The BLM website states, “ When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.”  Therefore police officers who commit these actions against unarmed citizens should be held accountable.

This idea of an additional premise is not new in African American rhetorical history.  We saw similar declarations in the protest signs used during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers strike, an event known primarily for the fact that it was Martin Luther King’s last protest before he was assassinated at the  Lorraine Motel.  Protesters carried signs that read “I am a Man” to indicate that they were not being treated equal to white men.

African American activists are reminding the rest of the country that there is a disparity in treatment that is institutionally rooted. 

If you want to know more:

  • About stance taking in writing see Barbara Johnstone’s text Discourse Analysis.
  • About Black Lives Matter see their website here.



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