by Paul Bowers
The man who gained media attention after taking off a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and declaring "All Lives Matter" at the start of Sunday night's Bridge to Peace event is not affiliated with the national #BlackLivesMatter organization or with the local group Black Lives Matter Charleston, according to both groups and the man himself.
The man, Cincinnati-based Jay Johnson, is the executive director of a separate group called Official Black Lives Matter, and he has an announcement to make: As of today, he's changing his organization's name to All Lives Matter. Johnson says the old name "has alienated particular groups."
"After what I saw in Charleston, I want to say I've had an epiphany," Johnson says. "What I saw yesterday was something that I had never seen. I really hadn't. And it touched me and it touched a lot of different people. I talked it over with my leadership, and they're like, 'Listen, man, we're elevating this thing. Let's embrace it.'"
Local and national activist groups with the name Black Lives Matter have been seeking to distance themselves from Johnson's Official Black Lives Matter since at least April. That's when the Post and Courier called Johnson a "national Black Lives Matter leader" and quoted him making critical remarks about Black Lives Matter Charleston.
As has been widely reported, the social-media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was coined by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Their group clarified on its website two days after the P&C article ran online that the #BlackLivesMatter National Committee stands behind the work of "our local North Charleston #BlackLivesMatter chapter" and that Johnson "is not now and has never been a part of our organization."
Asked for the important distinctions between Official Black Lives Matter and #BlackLivesMatter, Johnson said in a phone interview today, "Everyone has grabbed this catchphrase and come out with their own meaning of it. [Garza's] organization promotes the LGBT agenda and other concerns. My organization is strictly focused on police brutality and equality in the judicial system." Johnson says his organization has 10 people in its leadership.
Complicating matters further, Black Lives Matter Charleston is not an official chapter of #BlackLivesMatter, despite the national group's support. "We take on their guiding principles, and we have our autonomy also," says Muhiyidin d'Baha, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Charleston.
This week, various news outlets have been calling Johnson a "#Blacklivesmatter Organizer" (Yahoo News UK) and a "Black Lives Matter leader" (Raw Story, New Zealand Herald). Johnson says he is neither, and he blames the news media for missing the distinction.
"We are in no way affiliated with the hashtagged group," Johnson says. "I've issued the statement before, and most people gloss right over that and they think they're talking about those young ladies."
Brandon Fish, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Charleston, says he first encountered Johnson following the April police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston.
"When Walter Scott first got shot, he showed up out of nowhere, and we didn't have national representatives from Black Lives matter in town," Fish says.
Elias Lyles, a staff member of the activist organization Southerners On New Ground, says she also saw Johnson for the first time shortly after the Walter Scott shooting. "I've been organizing in Charleston for years and I've never seen this guy show up until now," Lyles says. "And he is clearly not with national Black Lives Matter because no national or local Black Lives organizer would ever lead a march with a police chief or say that Black Lives Matter should be replaced by All Lives Matter."
Asked to respond to the phrase "All Lives Matter" — a common refrain in internet forums and newspaper comment sections long before Johnson's declaration Sunday night — d'Baha said, "It's a continuation of white supremacy. When a black affirmation is too strong, it's softened up to accommodate white ears."
He added, "You really need to understand what an affirmation is. An affirmation is something that uplifts something; it's not necessarily against something else. And that's where there is some confusion: There's an assumption that because black lives matter, they assume that all lives don't matter. But that's not exactly what's being said ... White supremacy operates because of black inferiority and white superiority. So when we are saying, 'Black lives matter,' we are uplifting the black inferiority piece and saying black lives matter. It doesn't take away from anybody else's lives matter, but it's an affirmation that actually goes against white supremacy."