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Black Lives Matter: The Politics of Race and Movement in the 21st Century

Understanding the movement and what it represents

Where should we begin in accounting for the rise of the movement for black lives?

The tragedy of 21st century America is that there are innumerable places one could begin. The grievances that have sparked the cry, “Black Lives Matter,” might be rooted in the killing of black bodies at the hands of police, or the exploitation of black citizens in the extortion schemes of local governments that seek to keep their taxes low amidst the hegemony of austerity politics. Or, it might be rooted in the lack of safety that black people feel in a polity that still regards them, as W.E.B. DuBois pointed out over one hundred years ago, as “a problem.” In this way, the new century is not much different from those previous — the state sanctioned and, often, state-implemented exploitation of black and brown bodies is, wretchedly, as American as apple pie.

So, this story, like most political stories, is one that is always already in medias res. However, the makers of the Black Lives Movement (BLM) began the current iteration of the black liberation movement in a moment of painful politicization on the morning of July 15, 2013 when vigilante George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen deemed so suspicious and scary for walking, hoodie-clad in his Dad’s suburban neighborhood, that he could reasonably be stalked, attacked, and murdered on sight.

So sure were Florida authorities that the death of young Trayvon required no accounting that it took 45 days of protest for the admitted killer to be arrested. The trial that followed the arrest was watched with interest by the nation, but, as in most things American, a distinct racial divide in perceptions of the proceedings — specifically what, if any, political issues were at stake and whether justice was likely to be done — characterized the country’s attention.

According to a Pew Research Center survey taken in early July 2013, 78% of African Americans believed that the case raised important issues about race that needed to be discussed, as opposed to 28% of white Americans. Additionally, nearly 6 in 10 African Americans reported following the trial “very closely” compared with only 34% of whites, with 63% of blacks claiming that the trial was a focus of conversation when talking with friends compared to 42% of whites. Given the racial divide in both the attention to the trial and the assessment of the key issues at play, it is little surprise that upon the verdict of acquittal, 86% of African Americans declared themselves “unsatisfied,” compared with 30% of whites.

But these statistics only give a pencil-sketch outline of the political tumult that the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the subsequent sanctioning of that death by the U.S. legal system, produced. They cannot convey what those 86% of African American respondents felt on that day. For that, observers, like those who found themselves shocked (if not altogether surprised), must turn to the virtual sphere that provided a place to express the nuance and intensity of people’s reactions and make them public: social media. That day, the virtual public sphere was awash in conversations, dissections of the trial and evidence, and polemical rants, but more prominent than all of these were outcries of pain. And fear.

Like many African Americans, I took to my Facebook page with an emotional post:

I have been struggling with what to say. I’m a political scientist. And a political junky. I ought to say something politically productive. But my predominant response to this verdict is this thought, running through my head — ‘I am the mother of a black boy. The wife of a black man. They are not safe. They are not safe. They are not safe.’

And indeed, empirically, they are not. A recent study of racial bias in police killings (compiled from data from the U.S. Police-Shooting Database, the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report, the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System, The National Lawyer’s Guild’s Stolen Lives Project, the Fatal Encounters Database, the Killed By Police database, and the Mapping Police Violence project, as well as additional data compiled by The Washington Post and The Guardian), finds that “the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police, on average.”

I did not know these statistics at the time of my Facebook post, but I knew like many other black Americans what I felt and feared and, in the tradition of the black feminist epistemology of Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks among many others, I recognized those powerful sensations as a kind of knowledge, an indicator of political urgency. And so I wrote my personal dread in a public forum, because I knew it to be political:

I cannot keep them safe from eyes that have no capacity to consider their humanity and no notion that they might be ordinary men, innocent of any crime but walking around in their skin. My loves, my whole life, everything we have built together, may be snuffed out by any armed coward who takes it upon themselves to exercise their prejudice at any time, in any place. And there may be no recourse. And there will certainly be no justice. Because all my pictures here of my beautiful, brilliant boy. Of my talented and dedicated and hardworking husband. They mean nothing to a stranger with a gun. I am overcome with sadness that this is my America.

I would remember to fear for my daughter — who, at the start of this iteration of black democratic insurgency in 2013, was not yet born — and for myself, as I shared in the pain of the fates of Tanisha Anderson. Rekia Boyd. Miriam Carey. Michelle Cusseaux. Shelly Frey. Kayla Moore. Sandra Bland. I witnessed the catastrophe of their killing through the collective mourning and political demand of #sayhername, another politically galvanizing twitter campaign of the black lives movement, which emerged in May of 2015 as a reminder and exhortation to acknowledge and publicize the stories of black women killed by police. Stories that too often went unmentioned, as the gendered burdens of women often do.

Listen. This is personal. And political. And empirical. And philosophical. This is about justice. And technique. And innovation. Which is to say, this is about the making and sustenance and vision of a mass movement in the 21st century.

deva graphThe emergence of #blacklivesmatter*

What we know about movements is that they emerge from more than grievance. Grievances are ever-present: resources are scarce, inequality is a fact, and systems of governance, including democracies, tend toward oligarchy and bureaucratization. Instead, movements emerge when people (1) come to understand their grievances as being caused by the status quo arrangement of power while simultaneously (2) coming to believe that protesting that arrangement of power is both urgent and efficacious. This understanding of a grievance as a public problem that has the potential to be solved through the political effort of ordinary people is what social movement scholars call insurgent consciousness. This insurgent consciousness often coalesces and is amplified through injustice frames that activists create.

In 21st century social movements, hashtags can become injustice frames. Alicia Garza relates the genesis of #blacklivesmatter, writing:

I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, […] as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society …

For many African American millennials, this was the moment of their political discovery of what Franz Fanon calls “the fact of blackness,” or the social and political fact that as a black person, one will always “experience his being through others,” having to move through life not only aware of how she will be viewed as an individual, but also as an example of blackness as it is constructed by the ideology and historiography of white supremacy.

I should pause here to make an important point. White supremacy, properly understood and as deployed by the movement for black lives, is not a prejudiced feeling about the superiority of white people. Instead, it is the name of the current state of social relations structured by and operating through institutions and social mores that shapes all of our subjectivities, arranges power, compounds inequality, and distributes privilege based on the historical legacy and continuing daily impact of racial categorization. In other words, white supremacy is a social and political fact (which exists amidst other politically relevant social facts) that structures — that is, organizes, the consequences of being in the world.

The moment of political awakening to the effects of white supremacy that many experienced on the acquittal of Martin’s killer might have subsided, without blossoming from grievance into movement, if not for three factors. The first is the mind boggling and heart rending regularity of the trauma of black deaths at the hands of either vigilantes or law enforcement. The second, the availability of social media to announce, discuss, mourn, analyze, and demand acknowledgement, accountability, and justice in the face of the endlessly repeating collective ordeal of loss. The third is the skillful and dedicated efforts of individuals and organizations across the country (indeed, worldwide) to turn these moments of trauma and rage into a sustained and sustaining political insurgency.

The heat and light of insurgency

The August killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri proved a tipping point for the mobilization of a movement that had been percolating for at least two years. DeRay McKesson, a prominent activist in the movement for black lives and co-founder of one of its prominent organizations, Campaign Zero, recounts that he was initially drawn to Ferguson by curiosity. “When Trayvon died,” he reflects, “I just had no clue what the news was, I just didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t want that to be the story in St. Louis.” The demonstrations that erupted on the night following Brown’s execution in the street, where his body lay uncovered all day as people gawked and gathered in grief and outrage, were large and grew by the hour. Even so, activist Johnetta Elzie remembers that the sentiment that kept repeating on her social media timelines was one of resignation: “It’s just another dead black boy. No one’s gonna care.” But, she reports, “I just didn’t believe it. All I had was my twitter, and my Facebook and my tumblr and my Instagram […] and I felt that someone, somewhere would care about what I was seeing.”

And, indeed, people did care. The coverage of the national cable networks was uneasy, yet attentive, with both CNN and Fox News reporting upticks in their ratings over the two weeks that followed the initial uprising on August 9th. The coverage, though extensive, followed the format of most media coverage of protest, less focused on exploring the reasons for the uprising and more focused on the spectacle of disorder. McKesson observed, “CNN was sort-of painting this picture about chaos. And Twitter and Instagram were painting a picture about pain and it was that that was a call to action.” Though he was originally in Ferguson as an observer, a kind of citizen reporter, McKesson recalls, “The second night, I got tear gassed — it was the first night of the curfew — it was in that moment that I became a protester.” In this transformation from a curious and attentive bystander to avowed political challenger, he was not alone. The police response, with law enforcement officers outfitted in military-gear pointing war weapons at American citizens as they sat atop armored tanks (the Missouri Guard went so far as to refer to protesters as “enemy forces” in their internal communications), was shocking to many. Photos of young people approaching human walls of police in riot gear and videos of officers threatening to “fucking kill” unarmed Americans exercising their 1st Amendment rights went viral and caused people of many races to ask themselves and each other: “is this our America?”

As is often the case, especially in democracies, the vividly repressive response of the state turned the public pain, which activists had made coherent in an injustice frame, and communal trauma, which had been forged into shared affect on social media, into collective action and political demand.

In Ferguson, people remained in the streets for two weeks and two days, and, just as the nightly demonstrations began to die down, a coalition of activists, including one of the founding-women of the movement, Patrice Cullors, and prominent Brooklyn-based queer activist Darnell Moore, planned the “Black Lives Matter Rides” to Ferguson, MO. This action, model after the Freedom Rides of the 1960s, brought over 500 people from Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Portland, and Tuscon, among other cities, to “support the people of Ferguson and help turn a local moment into a national movement.”

Those who ventured to Ferguson, most having raised funds to cover the cost of their travel on crowd-sourcing website Go Fund Me, went not only to protest alongside the still-shell-shocked residents, but also to strategize. Several small, local organizations including OBS: Organization for Black Struggle, Hands Up United, and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, met, often in local Churches, but also at community barbeques and other civic, community-building forums, with those who had come from afar. During these dialogues, they talked together about how to connect the dots — politically, rhetorically, organizationally — between the particular institutional abuse that led to Michael Brown’s death and the systemic vulnerability of black lives across America and throughout the world.

Accounts of the Black Lives Matter Riders’ experiences in Ferguson emerged on personal blogs as well as on popular websites like Feminist Wire and in the columns of major news magazines such as Salon, Ebony, and The Guardian. Participants reported that they were moved by the experience of standing in the place where Brown’s body had lain. That they were made more determined than they had been because they witnessed the pain and fear of the people who lived in the town. That they were impressed by the commitment of all those who gathered — a commitment that was made concrete by the promise activists made to each other to take what they had learned and discussed during the Rides back with them as they planned actions tailor-made in and for the cities from which they hailed. A BLM rider and writer for Colorlines magazine, Akiba Solomon, related the aftermath of the rides this way:

On Facebook I friend everyone I recognize from the trip […]. Throughout the week, tag-filled testimonies begin to appear. Several people (including me) say they can’t find the right words to describe our journey. One rider describes a change within: “I felt something shift in me and more importantly, I bore witness to an emergent Black political consciousness and a movement led by our youth.

The moment of mass insurgency that caused the whole world to watch in the early weeks of August 2014 was remarkable enough, but activists working for different organizations, on different coasts, and in locales in between, showed an impressive savvy. The Freedom Rides forged the popular injustice frame “#blacklivesmatter” into an insurgency with a collective identity. This is a rare accomplishment for a movement that is neither single-issue, nor located in any one organization or the charismatic presence of any one person. Instead, the movement for black lives re-purposed a successful tactic of the 20th century’s racial justice movement. In this way, activists were able to build relationships upon face-to-face encounters which gave participants the selective emotional incentives that Fancesca Polletta and James Jasper note are necessary to the formation of collective identities that are meant to endure during sustained political challenges. These relationships were later able to be maintained and deepened online. This style of organizing, one rooted in real-life, but bolstered by a vibrant and variegated virtual civic space housed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, WhatsApp, GroupMe, and other platforms, adopted as needed by participants, gave the collective action frame and slogan of the movement additional meaning for the leaders and residents who converged in Ferguson that fall. Not only did black lives matter in the abstract, as an aspirational political goal, but their politicized and mobilized black selves, very clearly and concretely, mattered to each other.

Almost a year later, in July of 2015, many of the Riders and an additional thousand people, representing dozens of organizations based in cities around the nation including Blackbird, Ferguson Action, BYP100, Million Hoodies, and Project South, came together again. This gathering, held in Cleveland, OH, was called the Movement for Black Lives Convening, and was designed as a conference on the activity, strategies, tactics, vision, and trajectory of an insurgency that has proved itself to be much more than a momentary outcry.

BLM as a 21st century social movement

The movement for black lives shares many of the formal characteristics that have so far dominated social movements in the late 20th and early 21 st centuries. BLM is avowedly collaborative, networked, and non-hierarchal. It also utilizes a social media/on-the-ground hybrid model of organization. In addition, the multiple tactics that have emerged in the protest and organizing repertoire of the movement are a mix between traditional forms of protest, like marches, street blockades, and die-ins, and innovative actions like #blackbrunch. BLM has learned the tactics of predecessor movements, but is not limited to them or bound by them.

In terms of what’s new about the way BLM and other 21st century social movements organize, social media cannot be ignored. The various platforms that make private thoughts instantly public have become key elements of all contemporary social movements’ repertoires. These platforms allow movement participants to communicate with each other, mobilize people in the streets, tell their own stories, frame international and domestic debates, and perform agenda-setting functions that were previously the exclusive purview of trained journalists in established professional media organizations.

However, while social media have transformed the way that contemporary movements organize, it is important that we do not become confused about the nature of the tool. Social media are a technology of protest, but they are not a stand-in or substitute for the long-standing processes of personal engagement, face-to-face organizing, and movement infrastructure-building in the form of regularizing channels of communication, creating relationships of trust, and designing resonant framings and clear collective goals. Unlike some other movements that have emerged this century, BLM has proved itself particularly skilled at not confusing the technology for the movement itself.

The movement for black lives is anchored by IRL (in-real-life) mass action — the movement was catalyzed in the streets. It is reported and reflected upon online. This convergence of traditional, offline organizing with the instantaneous frame diffusion of social media multiplies and magnifies the visible sites of the movement’s resistance while nurturing and expanding a vital sense of community and clearly broadcasting the preferred frames of the movement — frames which are often taken-up and amplified by traditional media, which report social media phenomena as news.

Still, the use of social media is not all up-side. In addition to enabling the instantaneous transmission of information, Facebook, twitter, and Instagram among other sharing sites, also makes the surveillance by officials and abuse from random, often anonymous detractors (known as “trolls”) much easier. In addition, social media are not good tools for accomplishing several essential tasks of movements. The Facebook and Twitter universes are not particularly good venues for developing trenchant analysis, deliberative engagement about purposes and goals, or building the infrastructure required for sustained collaboration and/or organization-building. These activities must be undertaken face-to-face or in private discussion groups that may be virtually hosted, but include only lead activists.

Beyond BLM’s savvy with the technologies of protest, old and new, that have become a part of their repertoire, it is important to note that BLM also has its own epistemology of movement. It stands out among 21st century social movements because it is self-consciously intersectional, avowedly intellectual, habitually reflexive, and doggedly planning for the long term.

BLM is changing politics

Like any social movement, the success of the movement for black lives must be measured by whether it is shifting mainstream understandings of the political problem that it highlights. In this dimension, too, BLM is exceptional. Since the emergence of the hashtag-cum-mass movement, the mainstream American conversation has been shifting. Questions about the relationship between citizens and police have been raised repeatedly and in resonant terms by activists and the media, politicians, and ordinary people are thinking about the violence of what social scientists call the “carceral state” in myriad ways. There has been a revival in the discussion of “police brutality” in the national media; elected officials from both parties are calling for “prison reform”; and more members of the polity are now identifying police violence and racial strife as major problems facing the nation. These forms of acknowledgement are not, by themselves, a solution, as many of the proposals for “reform” do not fully address the critiques of activists. However, they are a part of what makes it possible to sustain a movement’s relevance and increase its influence, supplying the movement for black lives with the grounds to keep making political claims and challenging the status quo arrangement of power and privilege.

These discourses about racialized police violence, and the need to scrutinize and change the carceral state, allow the polity as a whole to question the “post-racial” and “tough-on-crime” ethos that has reigned hegemonic since the early 1980s. This includes, most powerfully, the question that the hashtag of the movement begs: do black lives matter to the polity? If they don’t, what does that mean to us? What is the American polity willing to avow in the face of the dual challenge and charge to prove that they do?

In addition, activists have introduced questions about whether police are usually “heroes”; whether they are accountable enough, or at all, for transgressing their authority; what causes them to be unaccountable; and whether policing as it is currently constructed (or at all) is serving the needs and expectation of society. In short, BLM has framed the problem of the vulnerability of black lives as systematic and, setting aside the ways that different sectors of the polity are thinking and talking about solutions, the movement seems to be persuading the public that this might indeed be so. That’s an incredible feat in itself. And, given the conduct of the movement so far, it seems only the beginning of the change to come.

*For further information regarding the infographic, click here.

Deva Woodly

  • H Howell Williams

    Fascinating analysis of BLM through social movement literature, especially the observations of what is new. In addition to the coalitional and affective politics at work behind Black Live Matter, the role of social media is important both in terms of organization as well as publicizing the movement’s aims. Obviously the hashtag #blacklivesmatter has been useful for speaking to the outside world. It seems that media outlets and non-movement actors increasingly require easily communicable slogans. “Black lives matter,” “say her name,” and “we can’t breathe,” among others, effectively crystalize diverse movement goals into a handful of memes that are an important part of the way contemporary politics are communicated. Of course, media platforms are important, too. Periscope and other instant streaming sites can literally transpose a viewer into demonstrations and protests in real time. I can recall the initial protests in Ferguson, MO. Though I live in the UK, I was able to tune into UStream feeds that documented the militarized police response and the palpable fear and resilience of the demonstrators.

    Given these developments, I particularly liked this reminder that new media will not save us from the hard work of political change:
    “Unlike some other movements that have emerged this century, BLM has proved itself particularly skilled at not confusing the technology for the movement itself.”

  • ApathyNihilism

    Quote: “the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police, on average.”

    This says nothing about other mitigating factors in such shootings, such as what the person was doing when shot. Were such factors controlled for? Was the person judged mistakenly as being armed? Were they otherwise acting violently? We need the full background to assess such a statistic, before concluding that this is completely or partially a result of racism.

  • Rusty Wray

    AS long as black on black crime goes ignored the whole BLM movement is a sham.
    End of story.

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