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The Black Lives Matter Movement: A Brief History

By Jeremy Williams 21 and Eric Harwood 21

A protester holds up a sign reading "I can't breathe" (Photo Credit: Aelin Elliott)

Over the past eight years, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has taken the world by storm. According to a Vox article by Jen Kirby, protests have spread not only to every major American city, but all across the globe to cities such as Seoul, Sydney, Monrovia, and Rio de Janeiro. The protests aim to educate the public about systemic racism, police brutality, and how to enact reform. In support of the movement, we’re taking a dive into the history of BLM and the actions its supporters have taken in the eight years following Trayvon Martin’s murder and police officer George Zimmerman’s acquittal. We will briefly discuss the conflict between the Black community and the police force, proceed to outline four important murders in the development of the Black Lives Matter movement, and finally explore the powerful work of Black Lives Matter both nationally and locally. This is by no means a comprehensive investigation of BLM or the events that have led to its prominence as a Civil Rights advocacy organization; consider it rather an introduction to the topic. In order to understand a full picture of the movement, make sure to consult the links at the bottom of the article.

Whether in the form of vigilante lynching, police brutality, or mass incarceration, violence against Black people has been a norm in American society for decades. The constant threat of violence has induced fear into Black Americans’ daily lives, from explaining to children the risk of being shot on the street to consciously avoiding the stereotype of the ‘angry black man.’ White America has the luxury of being oblivious to the violence against Black people and even actively denying the existence of such violence. Only recently, through press, television, and social media attention, has the American system of violence against its Black citizens become a reality for all Americans.

In the summer of 2013, a unanimous jury decision acquitted officer George Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old whom Zimmerman had fatally shot a year earlier. The Zimmerman case attracted national attention from many who were outraged at the verdict.

On February 26, in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman called 9-1-1 to report the presence of a suspicious character later identified as Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was a neighborhood watchman in the gated community where Martin’s father lived. Zimmerman was instructed to remain in his patrol car until the police arrived. He disobeyed orders, confronted Trayvon Martin, and fatally shot him. Aside from the crime scene surroundings, Zimmerman’s 9-1-1 call was the only remaining evidence of the interaction.

When Zimmerman was acquitted, many felt that the trial had not been just. Many questioned whether Zimmerman racially profiled Martin or rather shot Martin in self-defense, as Zimmerman claimed. Protesters rallied in cities around the country to demonstrate their discontent with the Zimmerman trial’s outcome. Twitter and Facebook became outlets for the Black community and its allies’ outrage. Black activists stepped forward. Alicia Garza used social media platforms to write “A Love Letter to Black People,” in which she expressed her sadness, disappointment, and anger over the Zimmerman verdict and the constant violence against Black Americans.

Despite the frenzy of anger and sadness Garza was feeling in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, she signed the letter off affectionately: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”

Patrisse Cullors, an activist and friend of Garza, drew upon her message and started the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter with the goal of creating a movement to ensure the Black community’s safety. Opal Tometi began to create an online space for the movement’s foundations, and the three women began organizing Black Lives Matter.

The Black Lives Matter movement began gaining traction in 2014 in the wake of two digitally publicized deaths of Black men. The first of these was Eric Garner, who, on July 17, 2014, was strangled to death by officer Daniel Pantaleo. Pantaleo, along with three other police officers, had accused Garner of selling cigarettes without a tax stamp. After Garner refused to be handcuffed, Pantaleo forced Garner into a chokehold from behind, even though chokeholds had been banned in the NYPD since 1993. Eleven times Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe,” as he struggled to remain conscious. One of Garner’s friends filmed the whole encounter.

Pantaleo and Garner were far from strangers. Garner, a 43-year-old horticulturist, was one of many Bay Street people in a “cat-and-mouse” game with the Staten Island officers. For some time, an increasingly hostile police force had been confronting vendors of cigarettes and cheap goods. Since the late 1990s, New York, following many other states, had taken up “broken window policing.” This punitive theory states that when police officers are lenient with smaller offenses, such as shoplifting or vandalism, their actions subconsciously incentivize citizens to commit higher-profile crimes. As such, many police forces adopted a “zero-tolerance policy” in their area.

In just one week after the death of Eric Garner, Black Lives Matter responded with protests. From July to early December, peaceful protests sprung up across the Five Boroughs, mourning the death of Garner. On December 28, a massive, poetry-based protest swarmed Times Square. Two days later, an estimated 2,500 protesters marched to Bay Street with Reverend Al Sharpton.

Michael Brown’s murder elicited a wave of press attention and created hostile tensions between the Black community and national police. On August 9, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown and his friend were walking down the middle of Canefield Drive in Ferguson, MS, when officer Darron Wilson drove by and told the two to use the sidewalk. After the confrontation, Wilson fired multiple bullets at unarmed Brown in the middle of the street.

Reports conflict with one another over the details following the gunshots. Eyewitnesses claimed that Brown put his hands in the air and avoided confrontation. However, the Justice Department’s report concluded that Wilson had not violated Brown’s civil rights. It argued that since Brown had advanced on Wilson, Wilson’s use of force was justifiable. The next day, demonstrators began to steal from local stores and smash police car windows. They looted and burned a few stores to the ground. The next few days were filled with rioting and rubber bullets as protestors tried to find their footing. As soon as the local Black Lives Matter chapter stepped in, riots smoothed into protests.

The Justice Department’s report resulted in relentless protesting throughout the latter half of 2014, further reinforced by a grand jury’s refusal to try officer Darren Wilson. At the heart of the protests were BLM organizers. For the first time, BLM organizers transitioned from computer screens to national TV upon organizing the “Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride” to Ferguson in August of that year. Although just one of many groups that came together at Ferguson, BLM protesters were some of the most well-organized and most visible. More than 500 protesters descended from every major city onto the streets of Ferguson to protest. Protestors began to chant “hands up, don’t shoot” to replicate the non-threatening manner in which they believed Brown died. BLM organizers’ method — taking to Facebook and Twitter and organizing via conference calls — marked them as the perfect model for modern Black liberation movements worldwide.

When national outrage re-emerged in November after a grand jury decided not to indict any officer related to Garner’s death, BLM was ready to take control of the situation. “I can’t breathe” became the rallying cry of thousands of protesters across the nation, who believed that the acquittal was a miscarriage of justice. From New York to San Francisco, thousands participated in local “die-ins,” where protesters laid in the middle of the street, pretending to be dead. Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Atlanta all saw thousands of protesters take to the streets in protest. Over 300 people per protest were arrested in multiple protests, and Westfield police officers in West London ended up arresting 76 individuals, who had all protested in solidarity with American protesters. By late December, over 30 protests had occurred globally in direct response to the trial.

All this led to steady and powerful growth. By August the next year, there had been over 150 national protests organized by a total of 23 BLM chapters across the country. The BLM model had become the ideal model for how global black cyber activists took to the internet. As a result of the protests, the DOJ has evaluated police misconduct in a number of cities: Albuquerque, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York, Newark, and Portland, among others.

While Black Lives Matter appears to be the future of Civil Rights activism, there is something strikingly different about the new movement: there are no central leaders. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi may have founded the movement, but they are in no way the only voices of Black Lives Matter. This is partly because Black Lives Matter prides itself on being an all-inclusive movement that speaks out for and protects all Black lives.

On its website, Black Lives Matter recognizes that “Black liberation movements in this country have created room, space, and leadership mostly for Black heterosexual, cisgender men—leaving women, queer and transgender people, and others either out of the movement or in the background to move the work forward with little or no recognition.”

Black Lives Matter has also been cautious not to affiliate itself with any specific political party, politician, or leader of any previous Civil Rights movements in order to foster the independence and inclusivity of the movement. All are allowed to attach their voices to Black Lives Matter and amplify the call for Civil Rights, equity, and inclusion, but no one voice matters more than another.

Currently, there are seventeen official chapters of Black Lives Matter on the North American continent, but the voice of the movement has spread around the globe. The phrase Black Lives Matter is universally recognized as a call for action to protect Black lives and as a stance against systemic racism and oppression. The prevalence of social media and the internet both make activism and connecting activists an easier task for Black Lives Matter than for previous Civil Rights movements and help decentralize the movement. Black Lives Matter has a page on its website for starting a chapter of the organization, but it is clear that the official organization is not the only aspect of the movement. Protesting, petitioning, and informative posting on social media all help strengthen the voice of the movement without tying it to any specific individual.

It is worth examining the local chapters, as they have worked tirelessly to produce change all across the nation. Two particularly successful regional groups are those in Minneapolis, MN and Los Angeles, CA. In Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter activists have been pushing for reform for years. After the deaths of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile in 2015, MPD150, a research organization for Black Lives Matter, released a report detailing a long history of police violence against minorities in the city. They argued that the police department was not reformable, and would need to be completely overhauled or defunded as a result. That same year, a number of other Black Lives Matter groups pressured city officials to start defunding the police and reallocate funds into social programs. In 2018, regular lobbying efforts — through complaints in city councils and online petitions — were so successful that the city council agreed to redirect funding from the police budget into social programs, and created an office of Violence Protection.

In Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter activists (part of BLMLA) had many of the same requests. They had created a “people’s budget” that would reallocate the 54% of funds going to the police force into social services, drafted by thousands of locals. Upon the death of George Floyd, the refrain “Defund the Police” became all the more powerful. Just weeks after Floyd’s death, some city council members presented their plan to reallocate $150-200 million from the police force into social programs. They have been successful in passing Senate Bill 1421 (the “Right to Know” bill), which allows people to request the policing history of any police officer, stopped discriminatory search-and-seizures in the LA unified school district, and successfully pushed for the removal/arrest of many violent officers.

Eight minutes and 46 seconds. That is the time span in which Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on the neck of a subdued George Floyd, who was pleading for his life. The video evidence of such a brutal murder at the hands of police officers, coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, sparked national outrage over police brutality against Black Americans. Under the veil of a global pandemic that was disproportionately affecting Black Americans and people of color, the outrage began to encapsulate more than just police brutality, becoming a global issue instead of a national one.

Protesters mobilized (and continue to mobilize) in thousands to display their discontent with police brutality and racism in America. Although the deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of police have sparked their fair share of protest in the last few years, there are two key differences with the protests of the death of George Floyd. First, Americans filled the streets in the middle of a global pandemic that has been tearing through the country with devastating effects, and second, a large population of protesters is white. Whether the influx of white protesters is due to the brutality of George Floyd’s death, the quarantining of liberal college students with more conservative parents, or COVID-19’s unveiling of America’s racial disparities, it is clear that America is becoming less tolerant of racial injustice.

Over the past five to seven years, America has begun acknowledging the effects of systemic racism and its plague on society. According to a June 2020 New York Times interactive on the public opinion of BLM, The majority of Americans see racism as a “big problem” in the United States (76%), deem that protesters are fully justified in their anger (57%), and perceive Black Americans as more vulnerable to be unfairly mistreated by police. None of these ideas were so widespread less than a decade ago. Black Lives Matter has also benefited from the shift in the American conscience. In a little over two years, public opinion of Black Lives Matter has gone from a majority of Americans not supporting the movement (45% in support of BLM), to an overwhelming majority of Americans supporting it (75+% in support of BLM).

The murder of George Floyd and the general outrage because of it have already led to unprecedented changes across the country. Officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder in a rare demonstration of police accountability, and his fellow officers who stood by have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. The first-ever police accountability act, named after Floyd, has been passed in the House of Representatives. It limits chokeholds and police immunity, among other reforms. Mississippi has voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the corner of its state flag. George’s Floyd’s death is a catalyst for fundamental changes that Black Lives Matter has been advocating for since its very founding. Although not directly responsible for all of the changes being enacted in America, Black Lives Matter has acted as a constant driving force for the progression of American society, and it has brought the issue of racial injustice to the forefront to the public attention.

For eight years, Black Lives Matter has been at the forefront of the fight for Civil Rights for all Black Americans. Despite not having central leadership, Black Lives Matter has been successful in organizing and mobilizing thousands of protesters across the country and the globe. As Black Lives Matter rises, an increasing number of Americans begin to acknowledge America’s systemic inequalities that disadvantage people of color and begin to desire systemic change. Black Lives Matter is more than the organization founded by three black women, two of whom are part of the LGBTQ community. BLM is a cry for justice. The phrase “Black lives matter” is universally recognized as a modern call to action for fundamental changes to create a more equitable society. Black Lives Matter is the 21st Century evolution of the continuous fight against systemic racism that will never end until “Black lives matter” is a fact, not just a slogan.

Further Reading (suggested by the authors):


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