History and strategies of the movement - 2013-2019
The rise of Black Lives Matter in 2013, during Barack Obama's second term as US president, marks a new phase in the long struggle for equality and justice by Black people in the US. It demonstrates that, despite the historic gains of the Civil Rights Movement (see section A.3 'The Civil Rights Movement and Black Power in the USA: 1955-68' in Vol. 1 of this web guide for historical background and bibliography), a new generation still urgently needs to confront racism in many forms, especially in the police. The US movement has inspired a response in Black communities in other countries with a legacy of discrimination and vulnerability to police prejudice and varied forms of police violence. Campaigns have been launched in France, the UK, Canada, and Australia and also in Brazil.
The Black Lives Matter movement started taking shape in 2013 in the US in response to the shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, in Miami Garden, Florida in 2012. After Zimmerman was acquitted of murder by a jury, online exchanges between Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi – three radical Black organizers – culminated in #BlackLivesMatter as a political slogan and the name of a new movement.
The ‘Black Lives Matter Global Network’ aims to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. The main affirmative traits of the movement, in the words of the creators of it, are as follows:
“We are expansive. We are a collective of liberators who believe in an inclusive and spacious movement. We also believe that in order to win and bring as many people with us along the way, we must move beyond the narrow nationalism that is all too prevalent in Black communities.
We must ensure we are building a movement that brings all of us to the front.
We affirm the lives of Black queers and Trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.
We are working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.
We affirm our humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.
The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for all Black lives striving for liberation.”
The project developed into a member-led network of more than 40 chapters, established in 40 different cities in the United States founded on a group-centered model of leadership. The decentralised structure of the movement enables its chapters to organise in a manner best suited to each local area, whilst also allowing them to act in concert, as when the founders publicly declared their decision not to support any of the candidates in the run-up to the US Presidential election in 2016. Modes of protest include Internet and social media activism, demonstrations and rallies, and the occupation and blocking of highways.
Since 2013 protests have been taking place every year in response to the killing of Black people by police, with few admissions of responsibility by, and prosecution of, law enforcement officers. The police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August 2014 led to weeks of angry protest, joined by many from across the USA; the mass response helped to promote an organised movement. Some other notorious cases that fuelled the development and reinforcement of the movement were: the death in July 2014 of 43 year-old Eric Garner held down in the street by New York City police – a video of his death and final words ‘I can’t breath’ was publicised around the world; the shooting in Cleveland, Ohio, of 12 year-old Tamir Rice, who was throwing snowballs and holding a toy gun, in November 2014; and the death of Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Jamar Clark in 2015. Although not related to police shootings, another case that sparkled rage amongst Black communities and Black Lives Matter supporters was the murder of nine African Americans on 17 June 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by 21 year-old Dylan Roof. Besides the timing of the killings, this case also resonates in the building up of the BLM movement because Dylan Roof declared in its aftermath that he was hoping it would spark a race war.
As #BlackLivesMatter developed over the years, the hashtag has been utilized as a platform and organizing tool. Other groups, organizations, and individuals have started using it to expose anti-Black racism across the US. In fact, other campaigns intersected with #BlackLivesMatter, such as #SayHerName, a nationwide protest against the killing of Black women and girls by the police.
The social movement aimed at protecting Black lives has expanded to include several other organisations and activists. This network is still referred to as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and includes initiatives such as Campaign Zero, The Movement For Black Lives and #Vision4BlackLives initiated in 2015. The relevance of Campaign Zero to the Black Lives Matter movement is encapsulated in a ten-point political agenda set by Brittany Packnett, appointed by President Obama as a member of the Obama 21st Century Policing Task Force together with Samuel Sinyangwe, DeRay Mckesson, and Johnetta Elzie. The purpose of the agenda is to reform police practices related to the use of force, police training, recruitment and oversight; to secure independent investigations and prosecutions of police members, and ensure community representation within these contexts, as well as in relation to other goals that are specifically related to the BLM movement. To have an overview of the detailed project see https://www.joincampaignzero.org/solutions/#solutionsoverview.
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) entered a new phase when it released its six-point policy agenda at the end of July 2016 (immediately after both the Republican and Democrat national conventions), in order to have a voice in the electoral debate, but also to mark their independence from both political parties and presidential candidates. The agenda for legal, political, social and economic reform adopted by the Movement's over 50 constituent organizations is organised under six headings. These encapsulate the key goals to be achieved by a wide range of measures:
- 'Ending the War' against Black people, which includes proposals to 'demilitarize' law enforcement, end criminalisation of Black youth, halt dehumanising practices in the justice system and stop mass surveillance of Black communities;
- 'Reparations' for the heritage of slavery and continuing systematic discrimination, for example in education, the economy and housing;
- 'Invest-Divest', i.e. reallocation of government funds at all levels away from criminalisation of Black people and towards their education, employment and welfare;
- 'Economic Justice' for Black workers and communities including tax changes to redistribute wealth, state and federal job programmes, trade union rights - especially in the 'On Demand Economy', and support for autonomous economic institutions,
- 'Community Control' over laws and policies directly affecting Black people, including participatory budgeting;
- 'Political Power' for Black people, for example by reforming electoral laws that tend to disenfranchise them, and promoting democratic control.
The programme outlined is both radical and ambitious, and combines, as the M4BL 'Platform' explains, a vision for the future with immediate policy steps that are needed. Therefore under 'Economic Justice' it includes far-reaching goals, such as ending exploitative multinational trade agreements, e.g. the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as financial support for local cooperatives and legislative backing for local credit unions and insurance services. Under each of the six goals the policy agenda elaborates on the kinds legislation or policy change required at the local district or city level (where Black Lives activists had already had some legislative successes), state level and federal government level, the targets for campaigning (e.g. Congress or federal agencies), suggests model legislation, and lists existing bodies which may provide resources for campaigns. Although the movement springs out of Black communities, it recognizes 'a shared struggle with all oppressed communities' and appeals to 'those who claim to be our allies' to help create a new world. Goals such as promoting worker rights and ending privatisation of services (especially of police and other criminal justice related services, but also education), ending capital punishment, or reducing military expenditure, clearly imply the need for such alliances.
Black Lives Matter is focused on policy change in the US, but the Platform expresses solidarity with those around the world experiencing 'the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation', and includes international goals. Sometimes global aspirations and proposals relating to local communities coincide, as in the call for divestment from multinational industries producing fossil fuels and investing in community-based renewable energy supplies, both a contribution to reducing climate change. The B4LM policy programme is available in several languages including French, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic.
The ‘Platform’ in full can be accessed at the address https://policy.m4bl.org/).
Some questions about the commitment of BlackLivesMatter to nonviolence followed two events in July 2016. On 7th July 2016, five police officers were killed, and seven injured in Dallas, Texas, by Micah Xavier Johnson who allegedly stated that he was upset by the killing of Black people. And on 17th July 2016 six police officers were killed following the shooting of Alton Sterling, which led to street protests by BlackLivesMatter supporters. Despite harsh anti-white statements by some individuals and right-wing critiques of the movement as racist, the BlackLivesMatter movement has not been designated a hate group. Several declarations by the founders clarified the fact that BlackLivesMatter’s commitment to nonviolence is not an absolute amongst the movement’s participants. It is generally accepted as a preferred policy, but it is modified by explicit statements recognising the need to use any appropriate tactics or forms of direct action that would further the aim of eradicating racism and institutional repression. (For the view on nonviolence as a central principle of direct action, see the interview with Patrisse Cullors, one of the BLM founders, at http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-patrisse-cullors-black-lives-matter-2017-htmlstory.html).
From 2013 to 2019 Black Lives Matter was primarily a US-based movement, though it had international repercussions, and prompted a response in Britain, Australia and Brazil in particular, countries which each had their own forms of historic racial discrimination and background of struggles for racial justice. A few of the references below relate to this international dimension, although most are focused on the US experience.
New development in 2020
Black Lives Matter exploded into a national mass movement and the media headlines again in the USA in May 2020 following the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year old security guard and family man, in Minneapolis, Minnsota by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. The mass US demonstrations immediately prompted major and continuing acts of solidarity in Britain, where the spotlight was also turned on its own embedded forms of racial discrimination. There was a strong public response also in Australia, Brazil, Canada, many European cities, and parts of Africa. A mural dedicated to Mr. Floyd was even created in the last remaining part of Syria held by the opposition to Assad, Idlib.
Black Lives Matter was still at the beginning of 2020 a significant organizational force in the USA at a local and communal level in many areas, especially in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, where they closely scrutinized the police. But BLM seemed to have lost its national dimension and media profile. (Reasons for this included the impact of the Trump presidency and diversion of political energies to other causes, and the inherent difficulties of maintaining a national movement over a long period of time.)
The spark, which ignited a revived, and potentially even stronger, national movement was very similar to its origins in 2014 - the totally unjustifiable killing by a white police officer of an African American. Floyd died on a street in Minneapolis on 25 May, when - after he was cuffed and lying on the ground - Chauvin knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds despite his pleas: 'I can't breathe'. His words and the whole incident were caught on video and went viral, resulting in demonstrations across the USA on 27 May. Demonstrations continued, despite curfews imposed for 30-31 May. and carried on well into June. Spontaneous anger led in the first days to attacks on police cars and buildings (the local Minneapolis police precinct was burnt down) and some looting. The vast majority of protests thereafter, however, were totally peaceful, with an emphasis on going down on one knee in memory of George Floyd.
Commentators, including the veteran Civil Rights activist James Lawson, noted that one very positive sign was that many white Americans, especially the young, joined in the protests. Some of the grassroots groups that organized the Women's March in 2017 soon after Trump's inauguration helped to promote the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Many protests in small towns have been the result of friends and neighbours joining forces. One reported tally of two weeks' of protest in the US estimated that there had been demonstrations in 1,280 different places. There was an immediate political response from the Democratic Party, which introduced a reform bill into the House of Representatives on June 8 with a package of measures designed to monitor and record police misconduct nationally, make prosecution of the police easier, and to ban use of chokeholds by federal officers. Most policing is controlled at state and local levels, so the bill also requires federal grants to policing at these levels to be conditional on adopting such measures. The sole Black Republican Senator in Congress also made proposals for police reform, which he had been urging in the past. State and city authorities also began to initiate reforms to policing and to its supervision. The very extensive media coverage also allowed many spokespersons for African Americans to formulate their demands, in a context where polls suggested public opinion was shifting to greater recognition of the need for change.
Responses by police and police authorities were mixed. All four policemen involved in Floyd's arrest were fired from the force the next day. Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd (who clearly expected total immunity for his actions) was charged with second degree murder and manslaughter, whilst the other three officers – J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao and Thomas Lane - were charged with second degree aiding and abetting murder and second degree aiding and abetting manslaughter a week after. Many police chiefs, and even police unions often reluctant to criticize their members, condemned Floyd's killing. There had been a degree of success in reorganizing and changing the culture of violence in some local police forces since 2014 - for example in Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore and Denver. However, there were, after Floyd’s death, more reports of Black men being killed by police, notably in Atlanta, Georgia, where a policeman shot Rayshard Brooks in the back on 12 June. Policing of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations was sometimes restrained, and senior officers even joined in some protests, as in Camden, New Jersey and Flint, Michigan. But many police forces across the US reacted brutally, using baton charges and tear gas against peaceful BLM protesters, and hurling individuals to the ground or pepper-spraying them; about 250 journalists were reportedly assaulted by police in the first week of protests.
The police display of violence and aggression encouraged many politicians to back reforms to policing. But President Trump, despite occasionally recognizing the need for reform (he announced a ban on use of chokeholds), tended to encourage violent confrontation. He did so through his numerous tweets attacking the demonstrators, through his order to clear protesters forcibly out of Lafayette Square in front of the White House so that he could pose with a bible in front of St John's Episcopal Church, and through his early threat to call in the military to quell 'domestic terror'. Several prominent military men responded by speaking out publicly against the President.
Policing and treatment of people of colour in the justice system is also a major issue for Black Lives Matter protesters in Britain. Even though most police do not carry guns, statistics show that unarmed Black men are more liable to being shot - the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, London, in August 2011 sparked local anger - or to be killed during arrest. Black prisoners are also more likely to die in custody, as a campaign group founded over 20 years ago by families of Black prisoners (now the multiracial United Friends and Families) testifies. The tendency of police to 'stop and search' disproportionate numbers of young Black people has been a long-running issue (evoking varied responses from different governments). There have been serious attempts to tackle racial prejudice in the police since the McPherson Report in 1999 (resulting from police failure to pursue effectively the racist murder in London of a Black teenager, Stephen Lawrence) found that the force was 'institutionally racist'. A parliamentary enquiry, set up to examine police performance in the 20 years since the Report, was closed down as a matter of parliamentary procedure due to the December, 2019 general election.
The disproportionately high numbers of deaths in Britain due to the Covid-19 virus among Black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities had, although medical conditions were obviously also relevant, already intensified debate about the links between race and poverty and social disadvantage. The 'Windrush scandal' had earlier revealed the deeply unjust deportations of men and women of West Indian origin, who had legally come to the country many decades earlier (often as children). Others lost their financial and social entitlements unless they could provide an impossible amount of documentary evidence of continuous residence and work in the country. The marked under-representation of Black students at prestigious British universities and problems of underachievement at school had also been an issue for some years. The multiracial Black Lives Matter protests in May/June 2020 therefore encouraged immediate public debate about many of these issues.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded in June 2020 by promising a government enquiry to report back (with unprecedented speed for such enquiries) by the end of the year. Opposition parties, however, pointed out that there had already been a spate of recent enquiries and reports into forms of racial discrimination, whose recommendations were yet to be implemented. These included a review of the Windrush scandal with 30 recommendations, a review of deaths in custody with 10 recommendations and a report into workplace discrimination with 26 recommendations. The Black Labour MP, David Lammy, author of the 2017 Report on outcomes for Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups within the criminal justice system in England and Wales, where they were 12% of the prison population (but only 3% of the total population) had made 35 recommendations. He urged the Prime Minister to implement the recommendations of the previous reports, not to set up yet another enquiry.
The British BLM protests began to demand removal of statues of historical figures linked to racism and oppression, for example of Cecil Rhodes in front of Oriel College, Oxford, reviving earlier campaigns. (In the US Black Lives activists also revived 2017 protests about statues in Southern states of Confederate leaders in the Civil War and extended their demands to contentious statues in Washington.) British demonstrations focused particularly on Bristol, a city whose wealth owed much to slave trading, and on the statue to Edward Colston, honoured by the Victorians as a major philanthropist, who made his money trading slaves from West Africa and was a leading figure in the Royal African Company which promoted the shipping of tens of thousands of slaves, many of whom died during the journey and were thrown overboard. The city authorities had been debating what to do about the statue; demonstrators in June took direct action, dragged the statue from its plinth and dumped it in the harbour. Some BLM supporters suggested controversial statues could be placed in museums and presented in their full historical context.
Statues are a convenient focus for protest, but demands to remove major national figures, such as Scouts founder Baden-Powell, or ardent supporter of the British empire, but symbol and leader of British military resistance to Hitler, Winston Churchill, prompted anger and opposition from others. Statues also provided a focus for the extreme right: a coalition of these groups mobilized in Parliament Square on 12 June 2020 to 'defend' Churchill and to confront BLM. Black Lives organizers discouraged major violent conflict by asking many of their supporters to demonstrate elsewhere, although some did go to the venue.
The campaign against particular statues was broadened into calls for a revision of history education in both schools and at university level, not only to cover topics such as the slave trade and imperialism (often already on syllabuses) but to change the emphasis and underlying interpretation of such histories so as to challenge embedded 'white' and 'western' assumptions.
Readings – Black Lives Matter