Black Lives Matter in the Imperial Valley

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Black Lives Matter of the Imperial Valley, led by Hilton Smith, march in El Centro on MLK Day, 2016.

EL CENTRO — Black Lives Matter began as a social media hashtag in 2013 and has now evolved into a worldwide movement that campaigns against violence and social injustice. There is also a chapter in Imperial County.

“Black Lives Matter is a human rights organization and a human rights movement. It has been organized to fight the injustice of excessive force. It was initially organized to bring attention to the disproportionate number of African American males being killed. But it is a human rights matter and it’s a movement for justice,” explained Marlene Thomas, Chairperson of the Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee and active organizer for Black Lives Matter within the Imperial Valley.

The Imperial County Chapter of Black Lives Matter (IVBLM) was initiated in 2014 shortly after the Michael Brown/ Darren Wilson case in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Black Lives Matter is you, me, everybody. It is an inclusive organization that has chapters throughout the United States as well as international chapters. All lives matter,” added Thomas.

Imperial Valley Social Justice members Hilton and Wesley Smith (father and son) pursued the issue of minority marginalization and went on to organize the local BLM expression in 2014.

“Our main objective is to promote justice and equality against police brutality, and to bridge the gap between community and police. Trust must be obtained to have an effective police department that represents the community that it serves,” clarified H. Smith.

IVBLM has participated in events relating to the celebration of African-Americans, as well as encouraged residents to join with them in denouncing excessive force. The chapter called upon the community in December 2016 to protest outside the California Superior Court of El Centro during the trial related to an arrest caught on video, which BLM supports say demonstrated inappropriate force by police against the suspect.

The overall movement has relatively minimal top-down leadership. Local chapters set their own rules for membership, activism, and cooperation. On blacklivesmatter.com, the official website for the movement, the Imperial Valley is not listed among the larger cities and districts reported to have chapters. The resulting picture indicates IVBLM to be primarily a grass-roots organization operating independently of any central national leadership.

On a national scale, ‘Black Lives Matters’ first appeared in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin Case in Sanford, Florida. Alicia Garza of Oakland wrote on Facebook about her opinion of the Zimmerman verdict and ended it with the line, “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” The corresponding hashtag became a rallying cry for greater awareness of bias against blacks.

The protest in Ferguson proceeding the Wilson verdict captured national attention at the same time as the Black Lives Matter slogan began trending on online. The protest and the slogan eventually intertwined under the mainstream spotlight.

Surfacing footage related to police brutality, as well as attacks on law enforcement since 2014 has ignited an emotional explosion on both sides. The resulting debate became a tug-of-war between a group of people who feel taken advantage of by the system, and another group that feels the system’s services are being unappreciated and taken advantage of.

“I would like the community to research. We are trying to bring about the awareness.  And I think that we are doing that, however it’s important for the people to do their own independent research,” implored Thomas. ”

We have to recognize that it’s not black, white, brown, yellow or red, it’s really all of us. And it’s really until we look at things across the board as one that we will get it.”

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