The Black Lives Matter Movement: Reflections From A Black American Living In New Zealand
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Monday, 1 June, celebrates what New Zealanders call Queen’s Birthday Weekend, mostly with a frenzy of sales and sleep-ins. However, this Monday was different. It was 2:30PM in the afternoon and although New Zealand continues to be at Alert Level 2, I made a choice:
I chose to wear all black.
I chose to shout truth with dignity and defiance.
I chose to march.
Kia ora Aotearoa, my name is Diane Wesh and I’m a firm believer in the power of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) to create sustainable and lasting change, and to do so, by continually challenging the systems that have enabled violence and institutionalised racism towards black people.
My roots arise from red blood shed, white privilege, and ‘Blue Lives Matter’ — a countermovement to BLM that promotes the police as heroes being framed for race-related violence. It’s origins date back to 2014, formed by four law enforcement officers after two New York cops, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were shot and killed. The group now serves as a media company run solely by active and retired law enforcement officers to further criminalize communities of color.
This is my America, a country soiled with a long legacy of racism, my America, whose racial patterns adapt in ways that continue to maintain white dominance, and yes, my America, a nation that compartmentalises the treatment of black bodies carelessly into expendable or subhuman.
Growing Up Black
I was born and bred by tough Haitian immigrants in Virginia Beach, VA in an all white neighborhood where my closest black friend was a 15 minute drive to the other side of the block. My hometown is one of the most gentrified cities in the nation with a 17% gentrification rate and continues to boast confederate monuments, relics of racism as a means to glorify and uphold white supremacy in America.
My parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti — also known as that 'shit-hole country,' according to today’s politics. As with many other immigrants, my parents started from rock bottom and worked their way to the top. My mother started out as a maid and is now a Radiologist Technician and my father served as a cab driver prior to enlisting in the military and retiring as a Navy Chief. Growing up my four siblings and I were fortunate to have both of our parents in our lives. In my America, most black kids grow up in a single-mother household because black fathers are incarcerated five times more than their white counterparts for menial drug related incidents or are fatally shot by police. Together, my parents worked hard to lay a positive foundation for my siblings and myself, grooming and equipping us so that we could alternate between our two different worlds, black america and white america.
When I was seven-years-old, my parents gave me the ‘talk,’ educating me on the importance of being compliant, but also observant if I ever encountered the police. I remember my father saying, “Remember this as your go-to-guide for surviving the police.” My mother, disappointment visibly marking her face at the severity of it all, listened quietly as she knew the information was necessary for her child to make it in this world. My father demonstrated how I should always keep my hands visible, slowly taking his out of his pockets with his fingers reaching up. My mom then added “don’t forget, be respectful, never act out,” and the final, sobering reminder “just make sure you come home . . . alive.”
At the age of twelve, I realized that it was acceptable for police to perceive blackness as a threat and use 'I feared for my life’ as a justifiable defense to shoot and kill. By the age of twenty, sparked by the unjust murder of seventeen-year-old, Trayvon Martin in 2012, I switched my major and pursued a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice. In 2014, I applied to be an officer for the Virginia Beach Police Department, but despite passing every exam and crushing every athletic test I was denied and informed that I was 'too nice' to be a cop. At twenty-five, I graduated from Regent University School of Law with a Masters in Law/Human Rights using knowledge as my ammunition so that I could understand the law and effectively protect myself and my family against police brutality.
The 'American Dream'
According to the Washington Post, black Americans are treated callously at the hands of police and are two and a half times more likely to die from police brutality than their white counterparts. Due to the proliferation of handheld devices and social media the world is now seeing the racist domestic terrorism that has always persisted in America.
For black people, the ‘American Dream’ is our nightmare and the ‘land of the free’ has never been free enough.
Growing up in America, I have spent the majority of my life camouflaging and choking my true blackness to pacify the white masses. Whether it was monitoring the tone of my voice; altering the texture of my hair; or remaining passive on race-related subjects due to white fragility, I made choices in the past to protect myself because in America, being black is often deemed as a crime, one that could cost you life.
New Zealand Marches For Black Lives
As a black American living in New Zealand, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude when I stood in Aotea Square amidst the crowd of over two-thousand kiwis. There has been lots of backlash about whether this march should have even gone ahead — especially when church services, tangi and other forms of community gatherings have not been allowed. But hear my side of the story before you compare the BLM march to a cancelled festival event.
While it might seem we are in the era of protest and digital democracy with a march happening every day around the world for a different cause, let me share why I continue to be compelled by these forms of demonstrations.
In 1965 the Selma-to-Montgomery march was undertaken in an effort to register black voters in the south. The march was participated by Martin Luther King Jr., and protesters marched for 5-days and 54-miles from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery where they were met with violent opposition from white segregationists (aka bloody Sunday) in which a black protestor, Jimmy Lee Jackson was killed by an Alabama Trooper. Sparked with outrage over the killing of Jackson, more demonstrators joined the protest, and this ultimately led Congress to passing the Voting Acts Right of 1965 which guaranteed the right to vote for all black people.
That’s right, black folks got the right to vote just 55 years ago. However, for centuries, the first amendment right, i.e. the freedom to assemble and petition has been essential to American life to spotlight critical political issues and injustices.
Here in Aotearoa, I believe it is that same passion and determination for change that fuelled those who marched last Monday - despite the restrictions. And so, I marched with my black brothers and sisters and non-black allies. We protested and we chanted with righteous indignation: ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe.’
This monumental moment in history brought tears to my eyes. For the first time I stepped foot on New Zealand soil was the first time I ever felt ‘safe’ in a country. The protest not only solidified my safety, but also made clear that I too was protected, an emotion that I have never felt in my own country.
Violence Against Black Americans
Time and time again, America has shown their disregard for the black life: Ahmaud Arbery, a son who was executed in broad daylight by white supremacists; Breonna Taylor, an emergency room technician who was shot several times in her home by police; Sandra Bland, a daughter who was found hanging in her jail cell.
The recent murder of yet another black man sparked global outrage. From America, to the U.K, to New Zealand the world is protesting America's indifference to black suffering. But George Floyd wasn’t just a black body, he was somebody: a husband, a friend, a father, a brother. Yet, on live video a white cop, yet again, decided to play God and snatch a human life.
May we also never forget the countless black lives lost at the hands of law enforcement: Trayvon Martin, a son; Eric Garner, a father; Michael Brown, a friend; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy; Freddie Gray, a twin; Philando Castile, a nutrition services assistant for kids amongst other black lives taken by police.
Collectively, black anguish in America is incalculable. Protesting is my personal release from suppressed trauma and grief. People respond in different ways, because grief triggers us in different ways. Some shout and march; others write with justifiable rage; yet others campaign and start petitions, but every response to the plight and suffering of black people is ours, and is valid.
All Lives Matter: Dismisses The Black Experience
When I shout Black Lives Matter, I’m not disparaging any other race nor stating that only black lives matter, but rather I’m highlighting the immediate need for the equal protection of black bodies. In America, non-black lives are treated with more benevolence and humanity by law enforcement as though they matter.
Refuting BLM by shouting back 'all lives matter' completely dismisses and silences my black experience as a whole. In fact, All Lives Matter is a deeply problematic response to my community that is in constant peril and that disproving phrase shifts and redirects the attention from black lives.
I’m tired and exhausted — physically, emotionally, and mentally — from racism.
It is not my job to educate non-black people about anti-racism nor am I responsible for recommending suggestions for white people regarding how they should be using their privilege. Now, more than ever non-black allies need to educate themselves, call themselves out first, and use their privilege to help dismantle the oppressive American system because I can’t do everything for you.
I Chose To March
Ultimately, the Black Lives Matter Movement is a modern day revolution. People coming together to collectively amplify a shared voice to denounce violence and institutionalised racism towards black people. As an African-American living in New Zealand, I’m glad I chose to march on June 1, 2020 and I’m humbled that I got to do it with you Aotearoa.
Ngā mihi nui
An African-American in New Zealand.
WRITTEN BY: Diane Wesh
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: Shelley Te Haara
Diane is the recipient of mentorship from BCA Founder, Dione Joseph