“Black Lives Still Matter.”
The slogan appeared on a protest sign as hundreds of activists met at a church in Dallas three days after a gunman killed five police officers at a downtown protest against racially driven police violence.
The message was clear: The cause of the Black Lives Matter movement is just as valid now as it was last week. The killings, carried out by a black man targeting white officers, did not change that fact that across the country police violence is disproportionately directed at black men.
The activists have nonetheless been forced to defend the movement as they contemplate the best way to carry on the momentum that has been building for two years.
Since the Dallas killings, the El Paso police chief told reporters that Black Lives Matter was “a radical hate group.” Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani called the group “inherently racist” and said that it essentially put targets on the backs of police officers.
And a white police detective in Detroit was demoted after he called the activists “racists” and “terrorists” in a Facebook post in which he wrote that he had considered taking a day off after the “outrageous act perpetrated against my brothers.”
Worries that such criticism would derail the cause were on display at the meeting Sunday night at Friendship West Baptist Church.
“It’s going to be very important for us to go ahead and acknowledge how angry, how painful and how confused this situation is,” the church’s leader, the Rev. Freddie Haynes, told the mostly black crowd gathered in the pews.
“Black rage is founded on wounds in the soul,” he said. “There are wounds on our soul.”
The Black Lives Matter movement coalesced into a national political force after the 2014 police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Organizers have met with President Obama and other national leaders and confronted the two major presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. One of the leaders, DeRay Mckesson, unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, a black man injured in police custody.
The movement’s latest fuel came from the police killing last week of one black man in Louisiana and another in Minnesota.
But after the Dallas shootings, the activists found themselves having to disassociate the movement from the shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old former Army reservist who after a long standoff was killed by a police robot carrying explosives.
“This man gets plastered all over TV and they say that’s our men,” the Rev. Isaac Steen told the crowd Sunday.
Before the shootings, Sharay Santora, a 36-year-old hair stylist, was making progress in reaching out to conservative white Texans, recently winning over a Trump supporter, she told the other activists.
But now with tensions running high, she said she’s struggling to present Black Lives Matter in a way people can understand and support. She views the issue of racially directed police violence as the civil rights struggle of her time — one that cannot afford to pause, even briefly.
At the same time, she said, “just because we’re standing for our movement doesn’t mean we can’t go to the funerals” for the fallen police officers.
Cory Hughes, who had helped organize the Dallas protest last week, expressed a similar sentiment to the crowd: “Though you’re a Black Lives Matter activist, it doesn’t mean you hate white people.”
He was especially upset because his brother, who had joined the protest legally carrying a rifle before turning it over to police, was publicly identified by police as a “person of interest” in the aftermath of the sniper attack.
Hughes said the church gathering was a place he could express emotions that were off-limits elsewhere. “I can’t show any anger or passion because people will misconstrue it,” he said.
Longtime state Sen. Royce West, a black Dallas Democrat, urged the crowd to work with other communities in the city to build coalitions. Some movement leaders encouraged residents to register to vote and to press for improvements to policing.
Others called for more militant, immediate action to confront discrimination and push for major reforms, such as banning the use of grand juries in fatal officer-involved shootings.
“When black people stand up, we can get victories,” shouted LaShadion Anthony, an activist with the Dallas Action Coalition and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, named after one of the founders of the Black Panthers.
The crowd applauded, including Hughes. “I’ll go to war with you any day,” Hughes said. “The last I checked, there’s not a voter registration card that will stop a cop from shooting me.”
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations did not halt after the Dallas shootings. Protesters took to the streets in more than a dozen cities. They were arrested as they blocked highways and faced off against police in riot gear.
Mckesson was among more than 100 protesters arrested Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., where 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police earlier in the week outside a convenience store.
On Monday, Mckesson pushed back against some of the criticism his movement has received.
“It is better for New Yorkers and the American people that Giuliani is no longer an elected official,” he said. “He is attempting to distract us from addressing the serious issues of police violence and this country's legacy of racism against black people.”