It's been three years since 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri.
The incident would spark a massive social movement. In the days, weeks and months after the shooting and Wilson's eventual acquittal, protesters in Ferguson and across the country held "die-ins," blocked major highways, and petitioned lawmakers with the rallying cry "Black Lives Matter."
The movement, which organizers say seeks to unify people around social justice for African Americans, has also been polarizing.
In the wake of looting and rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore, counter groups like Blue Lives Matter have sprung up criticizing Black Lives Matter, and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke famously likened the group to the Ku Klux Klan.
Micah Xavier Johnson, a former Army veteran, then opened fire on police in Dallas last July. He was reportedly angry over police shootings of black men and sought to kill white police officers.
Six officers were killed in the shooting, which spurred legislators across the country to take up new "Blue Lives Matter" bills offering hate crime protection to cops.
We sat down with Michele Jawando, a civil rights attorney and Black Lives Matter advocate, to talk about the evolution of that movement over the last three years, the negative and positive impacts of the campaign and the challenges black Americans face in the era of President Trump.
Kellan Howell: Can you describe the significance of Michael Brown's death and the events that followed in Ferguson in forming the Black Lives Matter movement that we see today?
Michele Jawando: You know, there was such a powerful moment because in many ways you started to kind of hear the phrase “black lives matter” after the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of [George] Zimmerman, but where it really took off was after the Mike Brown situation in Ferguson.
I think that there are two reasons that happened. You saw a community that really was standing up for the first time in a very powerful, visible way. I think, additionally, you saw activists from all over the country come together and descend on this small town.
And I think, for most Americans the visuals of seeing an American city look like an occupied territory was an anathema, even for conservative Republicans. You saw individuals like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) both say, 'This is not our America, this is not what we should be doing.'
I think it also just resonated for communities of color that our issues around police-involved shootings and police brutality came to the forefront in such a visible way. And I think a lot of times these were concerns and feelings and situations that were happening in our community but weren’t visible. And the Mike Brown situation in Ferguson took it to another level and it forced the entire nation to really look at what was happening there, look at that situation and say ‘this isn’t right, something is happening.’
We later saw with the Department of Justice report that there was unconstitutional policing happening in that community. That they were being targeted for revenue to build up community store houses and targeting African American communities in this neighborhood. So, it was a powerful moment for so many reasons.
Howell: Why was this moment in particular the spark that lit the fire on the Black Lives Matter movement?
Jawando: I think it was an outcry that our humanity was at risk in a way that we have felt in communities of color for years and years and particularly the African American community. But we were crying out saying, 'Do you see me as a human being?'
Even the language that was used to describe the interaction between officer Wilson and Mike Brown dehumanized Mike Brown in so many ways. So, when you had a community that came together and said 'enough is enough,' and then this overreaction from local law enforcement, who didn't have community relationships. They weren't really focusing on how you build trust in communities of color, which we all know makes a difference.
Howell: How has Black Lives Matter impacted Ferguson over the last three years?
Jawando: If you look at the new police chief, who's an African American, who has spent a lot of time working on getting his officers out of the police station and in to the community. You’ve seen the police force since that incident three years ago diversify. You now see a city council that at one point had one African American is now up to three. That makes a difference. Why? Because people want their voices heard in this democracy and African Americans want their humanity recognized and thought about and you didn’t necessarily see that happening before.
Howell: What about on a national level? How has Michael Brown's death and Black Lives Matter impacted the conversation?
Jawando: I think as an outgrowth of what happened three years ago you've seen policy platforms, you've seen bipartisan legislation to look at issues around mass incarceration and sentencing. Bipartisan from deeply red states and deep blue states who are saying we actually have to do something about criminal justice reform, police involved shootings, police brutality. We have to do something and we have to do it together. I think the success of the Black Lives Matter movement is that is was more than a moment. It has become a movement and kind of enshrined in the work of policy makers, legislators, elected officials and activists from all over the country.
Howell: There's been a lot of negative attention around the movement as well, and many have accused BLM of being anti-police. What have been some of the consequences of that negative attention and how do you deal with that?
Jawando: I think, unfortunately when people say 'black lives matter' they think it is a story of exclusion as opposed to focus, and that's really what I think activists and legislators are saying when they say 'black lives matter.'
It's not to the exclusion of any other community but it is the idea of 'can we put together a set of policies and community-based solutions that will uplift communities, and African American communities specifically?'
I think people think that when you say 'black lives matter' that you inherently are saying you are anti-police or anti-law enforcement when that couldn’t be further from the truth. We recognize that local law enforcement are a part of the community. And so, we can’t begin to come up with solutions unless everybody is at the table. But that’s part of the problem. Not everyone has been at the table.
And so, when you think about movements that have risen up in opposition to Black Lives Matter is is because they do not understand at the core what this movement is about.
It is the affirmation of lives of African Americans, it is saying 'recognize my humanity,' it is saying let's put together a set of policies so that when we see the disparities that happen, whether it about sentencing, or enforcement, and we can point to that and say, 'listen we see things happening differently in African American communities than we see them happening in white communities.' And someone has to unpack and do something about that.
So yes, I think you're going to hear detractors but I think that's because at the core they don't understand that it's not about exclusion, it's about a focus.
Howell: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Black Lives Matter in the future?
Jawando: I think there is always a question about how you take the energy of rallies and kind of direct engagement on the ground and how you translate it in to policy wins or electoral wins. And so I think that’s something that we still want to see happen.
I think what has shifted is maybe how some elected officials or legislators, how they will approach these issues. Some of the things that Black Lives Matter has tried to endorse in terms of better community and local relations and recognizing that black humanity is not just a foreign concept. Those are wins, they are incremental, but they are wins.
You see even large jurisdictions like New York City and even Republican-leaning states look at criminal justice reform. I think those are successes and what will have to continue to happen is engagement. Particularly when you think you are losing, or when you're on the losing side of an election or your president doesn't necessarily ascribe greatness about the work that you're trying to do.
Howell: How do you stay engaged when we are still seeing images of police brutality in the media?
Jawando: We can’t let apathy or let situations that we will continue to see stop us from moving forward toward solutions. Apathy is what will stop us in this moment and what this moment calls us to do is not to back away, in fact it calls us to get more engaged and to have more passion and to come up with more solutions, because if we don’t we are literally talking about human lives that will be lost.