Published January 15, 2021
Rayshard Brooks. George Floyd. Daniel Prude. Breonna Taylor. These are the now-familiar names of just a few of the many Black people killed by police in 2020.
It was a year that magnified many flaws in America, perhaps none more so than the nation’s mistreatment of people of color.
With each killing, protestors flooded the streets in a unifying demand for change. 2020 was a difficult year in the nation’s long and complex history of race relations. But it was also a milestone year for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Because Black Lives Matter has become solidified in the American psyche,” says Kelly Patterson, associate professor in the School of Social Work who studies the intersection of poverty and inequality, as well as race and class. “Blackness matters, and always has. But now there is a heightened awareness of differential outcomes and disparate impacts based solely on the color of one’s skin.”
That was evident, too, last week when a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the hub of democracy in the U.S., Patterson says. “Even as we watched in horror the insurrection on the American Capitol, almost in unison across news outlets people were asking: ‘What if those mobs had been Black?’”
The May killing of Floyd by police in Minneapolis was clearly the turning point in 2020, Patterson says.
“There was an awakening, mostly by white folks, to a reality that Blacks have been enduring for centuries: Our lives mean less, and are taken for nothing,” she says.
“The Black Lives Matter movement itself is over 7 years old and has accomplished much in that time period, but George Floyd’s murder was a critical catalyst that shifted public opinion in favor of the movement. It propelled a fervency to make change,” says Patterson. “The wave of that change has been seen all across the country, bringing people from all races together to demand symbolic and, more importantly, structural changes supporting the value of Black lives.”
“I feel that was a spiritual sacrifice that propelled us all to think deeper about ourselves and to think about the changes we need in the world,” says Michael Mwenso, a UB visiting professor of the arts and leader of Mwenso & the Shakes, an internationally acclaimed troupe of musical artists. “That moment really changed the whole world. To see that execution happen made what’s going on in the world more real.”
While the movement has been based largely in the U.S., it has had global impact, says Mwenso, who was born in Sierra Leone and raised in London.
“You saw it in places all over the world, where people were reacting to a sort of trauma that I think we’ve been attuned to but never healed from,” he says. “2020 was the year for it to be exposed and for Black people to be able to express themselves and have the space to say, ‘We know there’s been a lot of changes but we know there’s still a lot of BS going on.’”
Mwenso has been teaching a program through the UB Arts Collaboratory, in collaboration with Bronwyn Keenan, titled “Protest, Hope and Resilience through Black Arts.” It’s a personally curated curriculum of history and music that explores how people of color have been agents of positive change and inclusion.
These are the types of programs and conversations that will help push the Black Lives Matter movement forward, he says.
If the events of 2020 created waves of support globally for Black Lives Matter, how can the movement maintain its momentum in 2021?
For starters, “When we say nothing, we are complicit,” says Patterson. “We need to hold ourselves and others accountable, especially those in power, like our employers and public officials at all levels.”
“We need to continually talk about it so it’s not just a healing aid,” Mwenso says, adding that he’s been buoyed by the empathy he has heard in conversations with people from all walks of life over the past year. “We need to find more allies who are white, who are in power, who are able to push forward what needs to change.”
Some of the biggest changes, Patterson says, must now go beyond the symbolic.
“There has to be real systemic change with a focus on housing, education, employment and the criminal justice system,” she says.
These changes would include increasing the production of affordable housing, expanding subsidized housing programs, prioritizing funding for schools and providing substantial funding for targeted job training while improving wages and working conditions.
“And finally, there must be a strong effort to dismantle our broken criminal justice system,” she says. “These changes would fundamentally improve the life chances of Black people in America.”
Both Patterson and Mwenso are optimistic about the movement’s future in 2021.
While many may also find renewed hope that positive change may soon come in the U.S. with a new presidential administration, Mwenso says it’s important to remember who has the real power.
“We cannot rely solely on a new administration,” he says. “We have to realize the power that we have. And that’s really what’s going to change things.”