Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a civil rights movement and activist network that originated from a hashtag campaign on social media in 2013. The #BlackLivesMatter campaign gained momentum online in the wake of a Florida jury finding George Zimmerman not guilty of the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black high school student whom Zimmerman shot and killed. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, but many people saw his acquittal by a jury as racially biased. As a social movement, BLM has focused largely on the lack of accountability for state violence committed against Black Americans, particularly police violence.
The movement has launched an activist network connected through social media that comprises individuals, local and regional groups, and international coalitions. While BLM has focused on police violence and disparities in the criminal justice system, many chapters champion specific issues that are local or personal to their members, including environmental justice and education. Within the movement's first few years, it spread to several countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ghana, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. BLM has attracted the support of many celebrities and professional athletes, while also drawing criticism from conservative politicians, law enforcement organizations, and others. Though much of the movement's strength stems from its grassroots origins and decentralized structure, its growth in size and influence has raised questions within the movement about how to move forward.
- Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a social movement that calls attention to how Black people are treated by law enforcement in the United States. Much of the movement's activism has focused on the excessive use of force by police and the perceived lack of accountability for their actions.
- The phrase "Black Lives Matter" first appeared on social media when activist Alicia Garza shared it on Facebook in 2013 in response to a jury declaring a white man not guilty of murdering an unarmed Black teenager.
- Activists mobilized in large protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown in 2014. These demonstrations attracted national media attention and established BLM as a political movement.
- During the summer of 2020, fifteen million to twenty-six million people participated in BLM demonstrations around the country after several high-profile killings of Black Americans. Further, BLM chapters appeared, and protests took place in countries around the world.
- BLM is credited with spurring conversations about police reform nationally. The movement has inspired legislation from lawmakers in both parties related not only to police reform but also protest rights.
- Critics have accused the BLM movement of encouraging violence against law enforcement. Some police officers and their supporters have established Blue Lives Matter groups to counter claims made by BLM.
- Though President Joe Biden has expressed support for BLM, the movement's leaders have expressed disappointment with his administration's unwillingness to embrace the more aggressive reforms.
Origins of the Movement
The phrase "Black Lives Matter" first appeared on social media when activist Alicia Garza posted her response to the Zimmerman verdict on Facebook. Garza's friend and fellow activist Patrisse Cullors saw the post and repurposed the phrase as a hashtag, sharing it on Twitter and launching the online campaign. Garza, Cullors, and Opal Tometi, another activist friend, began promoting the hashtag to mobilize protests against the Zimmerman decision. However, the phrase resonated with Black Americans who felt that the criminal justice system valued the lives of Black people less than the lives of others.
In July 2014 mobile phone footage was released of white New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo using excessive force on Eric Garner, an unarmed African American man. Garner died during the encounter. He could be heard repeatedly saying "I can't breathe" in the footage, and the phrase became a rallying cry for BLM supporters.
Less than one month after Garner's death, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot Michael Brown, an unarmed Black eighteen-year-old. Marches, protests, and rallies in response to the incident were promoted through the BLM social media campaign. Protests took place around the country shortly after Brown's death and in November following a grand jury's refusal to indict the officer for Brown's murder. Protesters in Ferguson were met by a police force armed with military assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, body armor, armored fighting vehicles, and chemical agents banned in warfare, such as tear gas.
The demonstrations in Ferguson brought national attention to BLM, establishing the movement as something more substantial than a social media campaign. Amid national awareness of the protests, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) opened investigations into the Garner case and on racial bias and the use of force within the Ferguson Police Department. In 2015 the DOJ published its findings about policing in Ferguson, concluding that the city prioritized revenue over public safety needs, and the city's police force and courts held racial biases that adversely affect Black people.
Despite the efforts of BLM, many police officers accused of using excessive force have avoided punishment, even those for whom damaging evidence has been captured on video. Some officers have had charges against them dropped or reduced, while others were not charged at all. For example, the 2017 acquittal of Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez for the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile received significant attention because Castile's girlfriend streamed the aftermath of the incident live on Facebook.
A few convictions of officers have occurred, including the 2019 sentencing of Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke for second-degree murder in the 2014 death of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald. The DOJ opened an investigation into the city's police department following McDonald's death. Another three officers, including Van Dyke's partner, were charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice, however they were ultimately acquitted. In July 2019 the Chicago Police Board ruled to dismiss four other officers from duty for their roles in misrepresenting Van Dyke's actions through false statements.
Increased Prominence After Ferguson
The protests in Ferguson established BLM as a political movement with the potential to disrupt the status quo. Activists Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett, and DeRay Mckesson, all prominent voices in the Ferguson protests, became more committed to the movement, launching several secondary projects including Mapping Police Violence, which catalogs police violence and provides analyses of that data; We The Protesters, which provides activists with resources for organizing demonstrations; StayWoke, a nonprofit organization that brings together activists to help with one another's projects; and Campaign Zero, a platform presenting data-driven solutions for policing reform.
By 2016 the movement had gained such prominence that both BLM activists and the police violence they condemn became talking points in the US presidential election. The Democratic, Green, and Libertarian candidates expressed support for the movement, while Republican nominee Donald Trump, who would go on to win the presidency, accused BLM of promoting racism, instigating violence, and disrespecting law enforcement. During the 2020 Democratic primary season, several of the party's candidates consulted with BLM activists. In the months leading to the 2020 presidential election, President Trump characterized BLM as a treasonous hate group. Some political commentators have inferred that Trump speaks out against BLM and protests for racial justice in general to galvanize his base supporters around a culture war issue. In contrast, Democratic nominee Joe Biden expressed support for BLM and incorporated into his campaign some of BLM's core principles related to criminal justice reform. After Biden became president, members of his administration met with BLM leaders in June 2021 to discuss police reform. According to the reports, the movement's leaders appreciated the opportunity to meet with White House officials but characterized the meeting as unproductive because the Biden administration had different perspectives on how the federal government could best serve Black communities.
Opposition to and Criticism of Black Lives Matter
Some people have responded to the slogan "Black Lives Matter" with concern that the phrase neglects the value of non-Black lives, choosing instead to align themselves with the phrase "All Lives Matter." For BLM supporters, the phrase "All Lives Matter" is seen as a denial that racial disparities exist in the criminal justice system and a dismissal of legitimate grievances. In response BLM activists have clarified that "Black Lives Matter" does not mean that other lives do not matter as well. They explain the phrase is intended to draw attention to the ways in which society does not ascribe the same value to Black lives as it does to the lives of others.
Reports of violence from the Ferguson protests led some Americans to adopt a view of BLM as a violent group hostile to law enforcement and white people. In 2020 during the first week of protests in Minneapolis following the police killing of George Floyd, mostly peaceful daytime protests were followed by nights sporadically dotted with arson, rioting, and looting. However, media critics note that many reports exaggerate the amount of violence and property damage caused by protesters.
As BLM has been forthright in its criticisms of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, many members of law enforcement have spoken out against the movement. In 2014 police officers in New York City established Blue Lives Matter, a movement to highlight violence committed against law enforcement, support police families, and build public awareness about the needs of police officers. Members of Blue Lives Matter have called for legislation that identifies violence against a police officer or firefighter as a hate crime, and such laws have been considered or passed in several states, including Georgia, Louisiana, and New York. Critics of these laws contend that membership in a professional community cannot be equated with membership in the social and racial groups traditionally protected by hate crime legislation.
BLM protests have also inspired legislation that would restrict public demonstration, identify certain activities as unlawful, such as blocking traffic, and impose additional penalties to crimes as part of a protest, such as defacing public monuments. Critics of these laws allege they would curtail freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment and serve to heighten tensions between protesters and law enforcement. As of September 2021, lawmakers in at least forty-five states have introduced more than 230 bills aimed at limiting the right to protest. Further, at least thirty-six of these laws have passed.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How would you characterize the role of social media in the growth, organization, and operation of the Black Lives Matter movement?
- What factors do you think have contributed to the BLM movement gaining broader acceptance and public support since it began in 2013?
- In what ways do you think that BLM movement has brought awareness to issues of racial injustices? Explain your answer.
Shift in Public Perception
By 2020 BLM had gained broader acceptance with the American public. In the spring of 2020, the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery while he jogged in his Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood, sparked a new wave of BLM protests. The New York Times reported that fifteen million to twenty-six million Americans participated in demonstrations in support of racial justice in early summer 2020, leading some scholars to call BLM the largest movement in US history.
A new slogan from BLM activists emerged during this time: "Defund the police." Activists demanded a shift from funding police agencies to using those resources for public services and non-policing community programs. Calls to defund police agencies have brought up concerns that communities with defunded police departments would become lawless and lack adequate resources to help crime victims. BLM's "Defund the police" slogan has become part of the national political debate about police reform. Many Republicans and some Democrats have dismissed the movement as dangerous and impractical. When BLM leaders met with the Biden administration in 2021, a central disagreement involved the administration's unwillingness to divert funding from law enforcement to invest in other programs. Activists at the meeting expressed further frustration as the Biden administration has offered stimulus funds to increase state and local police budgets.